No Country for Colin Kaepernick

It’s very possible that the activist-athlete will never take another snap in the NFL.

Colin Kaepernick warming up before a game.
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

A year ago, Colin Kaepernick—as an injured San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback during an exhibition game—began his practice of sitting during the pregame rendition of the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said of his protest. Through the season, even as he regained the starting gig for 11 games, Kaepernick continued his demonstration.

Of course, his protest wasn’t exactly well-received. Kaepernick faced near-universal revulsion from NFL team offices, and fared little better among the sports commentariat. President Obama and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have opined about his protest. President Trump—echoing a large percentage of Americans—has boasted about his role in keeping Kaepernick out of a job. After the quarterback chose to enter free agency in March, the same front offices that criticized him refused to offer him roster spots, even over marginal talents.

Less than a month away from the start of the regular season, Kaepernick is still out in the cold. Last weekend, the Miami Dolphins chose to sign the quarterback Jay Cutler over Kaepernick—and Cutler is coming out of retirement and is reportedly very much out of shape. Though the Baltimore Ravens’s coach and general manager both reported interest in Kaepernick and endorsed his skills, the business side of the operation has refused to offer him a contract, even as the team signed David Olson, a guy who last played for something called the Champions Indoor Football league. But despite the increasing likelihood that he will lose his spot in the NFL, Kaepernick has persisted in his activism. It seems, even, that this is the outcome for which he was prepared all along.

Just a month before Kaepernick’s protest began, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while selling CDs outside of a convenience store. Just a day after that, Philando Castile was shot and killed by Saint Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop, and protests in both Louisiana and the Twin Cities punctuated the prelude to football season. A month after Kaepernick began his protest, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by Officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed by officers in Charlotte, North Carolina, who admitted that video showed no “absolute definitive, visual evidence” that he’d provoked them.

Kaepernick saw his own protest as an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement and of the raucous protests that erupted in each of those cities. “It will be very telling about what happens to the officer that killed him,” he told reporters about Crutcher last September. “They shot and killed a man and walked around like it wasn’t a human being.” Yet Kaepernick’s protest was muted compared to those outcries. He chose to sit—an action that he soon modified into a kneel in order to avoid disrespecting veterans—and never made public mention of his protest unless asked about it.

After years of media and political backlash against the tactics of Black Lives Matter, from efforts to criminalize marches to proposed legislation that might allow drivers to kill protesters with impunity to wild claims that the movement’s strategies actually kill people, Kaepernick simply chose not to stand. The protest spread to others in the NFL, and to other sports, perhaps because of its resemblance to another famous sports demonstration. Although the “Kaepernick kneel” was much more understated and less directly connected to an ideology than the choice by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to raise their black-gloved fists to the sky during the 1968 Olympics, it carried the same kind of defiance.

As he’s sought a new job this offseason, his detractors have proffered a shifting set of explanations for his inability to land a roster spot. But in a league where much more marginal talents or much more damaging reputations than his are flourishing, with due consideration to the capricious and often arbitrary nature of employment in the National Football League, it seems clear enough that Kaepernick’s defiance is really the thing.

Maybe an informal ban from the NFL was the ultimate end for his protest. What the last year of his activism has illustrated more than anything is that the NFL will not—and perhaps cannot—tolerate politics that challenge the status quo or run the risk of upsetting white fans. If he doesn’t receive a training camp invite this month, Kaepernick’s biggest impact could be in holding a mirror to the NFL, and through his own treatment highlighting exactly where the league fails.

Exile would also amplify the athlete’s message about the country. The NFL has risen to prominence in the last half-century as America’s true pastime at least in part because of how well it embodies the American ethos. Football Sunday is a kind of Sabbath for the country, and the NFL is the mother church of a new American civic religion. Through football, a one-hour spectacle of peak human performance and perfect pageantry is transubstantiated in real time into the country’s sustaining mythology. Americans see in football what they see in themselves. Kids from the bleakest conditions see heroes on the field from the same places. Adults soldier on through crushing workloads and illness with the template of godlike athletes playing through injury in their minds. Americans build lifelong and familial bonds through the sport—Packers, Patriots, and Panthers are bred and born everyday.

But the NFL is also a reflection of the worst parts of America, and its neuroses and pathologies. Violence between the lines is often accompanied by the dishonor of violence against women and other brutal off-the-field incidents, which often go unpunished by the league. The necessity of superhuman effort and workaholism breaks down human bodies and minds and has led to the NFL’s own mini-opioid epidemic. Science is regularly ignored when it runs up against profit, even when its portents are dire. And the very patriotism that now fuels the NFL—much of which is performed during the same anthem Kaepernick protests—has been attacked as a cynical exercise in paid propaganda.

Through history, activists have learned that the best way to fight the forces advancing militarism, bigotry, and poverty in the country has been to turn its worst impulses against it. Such was the crux of civil disobedience as practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent segments of the civil-rights movement that he helped lead. That movement found that provoking exaggerated responses to rather minimal protests—sit-ins, marches, and bus rides—was useful in subverting American claims to virtue and the colorblindness of justice. Activists embraced prison time and other draconian measures from authorities—sometimes paying the ultimate price—as a method of showcasing just how deep injustice ran.

Kaepernick is not King; he is a multimillionaire athlete equipped with nondiscrimination and political-activism protections for which activists of King’s generation fought, and unburdened by some of the real dangers that they faced. But his protest does resemble those of previous athletes-turned-activists who put their livelihoods on the line to make statements. One of the popular arguments early on against Kaepernick was that he was too privileged, and that his protest had no real skin in the game. Or, as Forbes contributor Eric Macramalla put it last August: “There is one key feature that distinguishes Ali from Kaepernick, and that is sacrifice.”

A year later, such criticisms clearly missed the mark. Kaepernick has already sacrificed money, influence, and perhaps his career. And judging by his prioritization of activism across the globe now—with some 49ers staffers indicating “Kaepernick might actually rather do social justice work full-time than play quarterback”—that sacrifice appears to have always been the endgame.

Lost in most of the uproar over Kaepernick’s choice to kneel is the fact that none of the officers involved in the killings of Sterling, Castile, Crutcher, or Scott were convicted of any crime, and most never even saw trial. Despite the Trump administration’s condemnation of black protesters and the spread of the idea of a “Ferguson effect” chilling law enforcement and increasing crime, annual killings by police have barely changed over the past three years, and black and brown people still make up a highly disproportionate number of those slain. The country now faces up to eight years of a president and attorney general who have openly derided criminal-justice reforms and advocated to enact more carceral laws.

But in exposing the hypocrisy of the NFL—and by extension America—protests like Kaepernick’s may have longlasting effects. Already, the NFL faces the prospect of boycotts and a further erosion of its stained public image if Kaepernick isn’t signed. Tides turn quickly, and Kaepernick’s saga could be one of many tiny ripples that force the country away from denialism and toward progress.

It’s therefore possible that those who protested on behalf of people like Sterling, Castile, Crutcher, or Scott will one day be lauded as heroes—even as they are reviled today. Such is the American way of history. By the time King was killed in 1968, public opinion was tilted firmly against him. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were blackballed, and faced a multitude of death threats in their time, even as their protest is remembered now as one of the most remarkable moments in Olympic history. Ali once faced widespread denunciation and a ban from boxing for his political views and anti-patriotism, even as he is now upheld as the model activist-athlete by Americans of all races and ideologies. Kaepernick is carrying on that legacy. This country can be changed through sport, and his protest is just a first step.