In the End, the NFL Proved Colin Kaepernick Right

In pronouncing the outspoken quarterback’s career dead, the league underscored its own unwillingness to let players exercise their own power.

Colin Kaepernick
Al Bello / Getty

When the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, declared yesterday that the league had “moved on” from the embattled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the finality of Goodell’s tone answered the question about whether Kaepernick would ever play professional football again.

Kaepernick became persona non grata in the National Football League after the 2016 season, during which he protested police violence against African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem. The league then spent more than two years trying to make him go away, but seemed to relent by scheduling a workout for him last month in Atlanta. But that proposed session didn’t happen on the NFL’s terms, and Goodell, in his first public comments about the matter, implied yesterday that Kaepernick had blown his last chance.

“It was a unique opportunity—an incredible opportunity—and he chose not to take it. And we’ve moved on here,” Goodell said at an owners’ meeting in Irving, Texas.

But if Goodell believes that the Atlanta fiasco provided closure to this situation, he’s being horribly naive. The league’s clumsy treatment of Kaepernick only showed what the quarterback’s supporters have been saying all along: The NFL is unwilling to tolerate black athletes’ outrage, outspokenness, and desire to exercise their power—even though all three are entirely justified.

When NFL officials agreed to set up a workout for Kaepernick, they clearly hoped to prove that there was no league-wide conspiracy to keep him unemployed, and that he just wasn’t good enough to play professionally.

But the workout became a circus of its own, and not only because the league tried to micromanage media coverage of the event and proposed a liability waiver whose language Kaepernick’s camp could not abide. It was fishy that the NFL was even attempting to stage a workout at all. The league does not typically conduct player workouts. Individual teams do. And considering that no NFL team—not even the ones desperately in need a quarterback—had brought Kaepernick in for a workout since his final season in San Francisco, the question of whether there was still legitimate interest in Kaepernick as a quarterback had already been answered in the negative. Since the NFL was essentially proposing a sham tryout—a glorified PR stunt—it can’t be surprising that things unraveled.

As a counter, Kaepernick held his own private workout at Charles Drew High School, in Atlanta, on the same day the NFL had proposed. Only six NFL scouts attended. The workout was live-streamed. Based on what the video shows, Kaepernick appeared to be in excellent shape. The arm strength that allowed Kaepernick to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl during the 2012 season was still apparent.

Of course, this dispute never had anything to do with Kaepernick’s ample talent—or his marketability, for that matter. His role in a widely praised Nike ad campaign suggests that he poses no threat to the league’s bottom line; if anything, there is still an appetite for him among fans. But he is a danger because a league that champions conformity and balks at individual expression cannot have a player on its roster whose narrative is beyond its control. No player is supposed to be bigger than the NFL’s powerful brand. But even from exile, Kaepernick has managed to overshadow the league on more than a few occasions.

Still, the NFL’s banishment of Kaepernick wasn’t just an effort by a multibillion-dollar sports empire to make an example of a player who spoke up against the owners’ wishes. It wasn’t just an attempt to appease conservative white fans and nervous advertisers. Nor was it just a way to pander to President Donald Trump out of fear that he would sic his cultish followers on pro football.

In its treatment of Kaepernick, the NFL also played out, in modern form, a scenario all too familiar from American history: The league showed black employees that their livelihood will be destroyed if they question white dominance and threaten the systems that have oppressed people of color for centuries.

The NFL enjoys massive popularity despite being unapologetically pro-owner and anti-player. The brutality of the sport isn’t a turnoff for fans, but a turn-on. That players don’t have guaranteed contracts despite the unfathomable health risks isn’t deemed cruel. It’s celebrated.

Since the league is predominantly made up of African American players, it is not a coincidence that the NFL’s objectionable treatment of players is so widely tolerated. Black bodies have always been expendable. And black minds that refuse to concede have always been a threat.

Kaepernick, who has mostly been keeping mum, hasn’t yet responded to the NFL’s pronouncement that his career is over. After the workout last month, though, he made it clear that he still wanted the league to see the error of its ways. “So we’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running,” Kaepernick told reporters in a rare public comment. “Stop running from the truth, stop running from the people.”

He is now in permanent exile, and Goodell and his league may think they’ve resolved this Kaepernick situation for good. But the inequities the former Niners quarterback sacrificed his career to point out—both within the NFL and in American society as a whole—aren’t going away. Kaepernick’s resistance was only the start.