A rally gathered in front of the NFL’s Park Avenue Headquarters in New York on August 23. A host of civil-rights organisations protested the exile-status of free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick — the star quarterback formerly of the San Francisco 49ers who caused waves by taking to his knee during the US national anthem as an anti-racist protest.
There was no indication that Kaepernick is connected to the rally, but his endorsement is irrelevant: The issue has become something far bigger than the makeup of an NFL roster.
The Kaepernick story is not just about a quarterback looking for employment, but about whether, in the Trump era, speaking out against police violence and institutionalised racism can cost you your job.
Activists want to make sure that Kaepernick never becomes a cautionary tale, a ghost story meant to scare people — athletes or otherwise — from speaking out. As legendary civil-rights activists and musician Harry Belafonte said in support of the protest: “When a black voice is raised in protest to oppression, those who are comfortable with our oppression are the first to criticise us for daring to speak out against it.”
The rally was a response to the official reasons put forth by NFL executives and their media mouthpieces for Kaepernick’s unsigned status, which have moved from outrage to farce to insult.
First the “NFL experts”, in full disinformation mode, said that he was unsigned because he wasn’t good enough. Then they said he wanted too much money. Then they expressed worry that he was not in good enough shape because he is a vegan. Then they said that the starting jobs are all filled up, and he might just be too good to be a backup.
As a long line of sub-par quarterbacks were signed — including some who had been retired or were best known for being part of NFL blooper-reels — a quarterback who took the San Francisco 49ers within one play of winning the Super Bowl in 2012 still finds himself out of work.
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, like many players, has gone from giving the NFL the benefit of the doubt to thinking that something is rotten on Park Avenue.
He said to ESPN: “My original position was I thought that the situation last year with him taking a knee didn’t have anything to do with [his being unsigned]. After viewing what’s going on, I’ve got to take that back.
“I definitely think that the league, the owners are trying to send a message of, ‘Stay in between the lines’.”
We know why Kaepernick hasn’t been signed. It is not only because he famously took a knee during the national anthem.
It is also because he backed his actions with words and deeds, saying things like: “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.”
He then spent the season enduring death threats, inspiring other players to take action, and publicly giving money to organisations like Assata’s Daughters, a health clinic at Standing Rock.
What we have, quite simply and obviously, is a case of NFL owners colluding to keep Kaepernick out of a job. This blackballing is not just about punishing him as an individual.
It is the NFL sending a shot across the bow at every player who’s been inspired to speak out and be heard. It’s a warning that you should just collect your checks, get your concussions, and keep your mouths shut. It’s a statement by NFL owners that Black lives matter only when they entertain or sell league-approved products — not when they speak out against injustice.
Tamika Mallory, co-president of the Women’s March, said of her support for the protest: “Colin Kaepernick used his constitutional right to free speech and took a knee on behalf of Black lives.
“When the NFL has a history of excusing players for egregious behaviors (including violence against women), it is clear team owners are making a statement when it comes to Kaepernick. We as consumers, viewers and people of good moral conscience must make one as well.”
As for Kaepernick himself, I met the quarterback at one of his Know Your Rights camps. He is at peace with the choices he has made, even if it costs him his livelihood.
That is a beautiful thing, but many others are not at peace with the choices made by the NFL ownership fraternity. They are protesting the NFL’s choice to punish a player for daring to be more than a brand. They are protesting the idea that our only response to injustice should be silence.
[Slightly abridged from Edge of Sports. Dave Zirin is the author of the book: Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to email@example.com.]