Colin Kaepernick was named GQ’s Citizen of the Year 2017, appearing on this month’s cover, yet he still has no NFL team. In protest, he filed a collusion grievance against the NFL last month, arguing that he is being shut out of the league due to his politics. So what does his situation say about the aligning of athletes with politics? Is he simply not good enough, or is it that he is too much of a PR liability to sign for a team?
Four years ago, Kaepernick appeared on the cover of GQ magazine, having just suited up as the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback in the Super Bowl. He had broken the record for rushing yards in a single game, and was one of the most promising players in the league in only his second season. He was rewarded with a record seven-year, $126 million contract a year later. This month, he was featured in GQ for an entirely different, and far more polarising, reason.
Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers at the end of the 2016 season, knowing he would be released if he did not. He hasn’t been signed by any one of the NFL’s thirty-two teams since. Whilst Kaepernick’s team finished the 2016 season with a record of two wins and fourteen losses, their worst record since 2004, Kaepernick’s personal performance was at least as good as his career average, maintaining his added threat running with the ball as well as throwing, a trait not many quarterbacks can boast. He left the 49ers immediately following the season in which he famously began to kneel during the US national anthem.
He reasoned that “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”.
This gesture snowballed across the league into a movement that still occurs across the country each Sunday, sparking mixed reaction from the White House to Hertha Berlin BSC.
With each new ‘quarterback crisis’ an NFL team suffers, the reason Kaepernick is still a free agent becomes more and more unashamedly obvious. The Houston Texans, after quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending injury, signed Josh Johnson, who has not thrown a ball in the league since 2011, over Kaepernick.
Kaepernick undoubtedly has a place in the top 64 quarterbacks available, either as a starter or a backup, but his political stance – for want of a better word – of protesting police brutality has become toxic and is the beginning and end of all conversation for teams looking to sign a quarterback.
Sport and politics have always had a close and complicated relationship, with the relative exception of the NFL. It has no ‘Jackie Robinson’ civil rights moment, no rivalries motivated by politics or religion such as the Old Firm, and luckily no tragedy and following social conflict to the extent of Hillsborough.
However, there was a paradigm shift in the league following the events of 9/11. ‘Star Spangled Banner’ had been sung before games ever since the Second World War, but there was a significant increase in military imagery and flag waving before games, even celebrating a ‘Salute to Service’ week with coaches and cheerleaders wearing camouflage team apparel.
Over fifteen years, the flag and the anthem had become unbreakably linked with the army and servicemen and women. Kaepernick’s decision to protest police brutality, using the platform of the NFL, during the national anthem no less, has been inevitably manipulated by those who disagree with him. They have transformed the narrative to paint Kaepernick, and those who kneel with him, as protestors to the military, and the fabric of America. Kaepernick has failed to reclaim the narrative and has been transformed into the public relations liability that NFL teams refuse to touch.
However, whilst Kaepernick is out of the league, his political movement endures, which perhaps goes to show that much like history suggests, even the most influential protests come at a price, and in the case of Kaepernick, that price may be his career.
Image Courtesy of Mike Morbeck