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Colin Kaepernick Isn’t Being Blackballed Because He Knelt for the Anthem

Each NFL owner to play hot-potato with the Colin Kaepernick conundrum exposes a new layer of the paradox. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson didn’t want to receive a “nasty tweet”; the Seattle Seahawks said Kaepernick was too good to be a backup; Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti sought prayers; and the Miami Dolphins offered $10-million to coax 34-year-old Jay Cutler, coming off a torn labrum, out of retirement.

Each layer peeled away common arguments — it’s nothing to do with politics; Kaepernick isn’t good anymore; the NFL is a meritocracy; he isn’t being blackballed — and now, as the timer beeps ever faster, we’re seeing increasingly comical reactions each time the saga lands in a new pair of hands. Certainly it has now become as laughable as it is frustrating.

Through it all Colin Kaepernick has remained silent. In his silence he has raised yet another mirror to reveal another ugly truth about another American institution. What’s left reflected is that Colin Kaepernick isn’t being blackballed because he knelt for the national anthem, he’s being blackballed because the NFL has (for decades) persuaded its patrons that what he is doesn’t exist: a three-dimensional, wholly human Black athlete.

Some time ago the NFL made a conscious decision to do what is necessary to circle the wagons, embrace and reinforce traditional White American leanings. With the appointment of current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, those linkage points have been exploited more deeply.

In order to escape accountability for the injuries of its players, Goodell has turned to an oft-used trope: the offering of an outlet for faux-sympathy to avoid the consequence of genuine empathy. The aim — as with most institutions designed to inflate the value of the White Male American — is to posit the White male as arbiters of causes by transforming their sympathy into (literal and figurative) currency.

The NFL has done it well. While charging the Department of Defense for displays of military might and adulation, the NFL taps into the segment of America that expresses patriotism through merely performative support for the troops. Another model which helped the NFL add to its coffers, while providing an outlet for men to pat themselves on the back, has been the embrace of the cause of Breast Cancer Awareness. The jig is highlighted in not only the disproportionate divvying of merchandise sold, but more poignantly in who cares. The stance allows them to be anti-cancer (who isn’t?), sell specialty merchandise ($$$), and say ‘breast’ an awful lot while cameras pan in on cheerleaders rustling pink pom-poms (do not underestimate the inability of males engrossed in violence to separate lust from charity).

With player safety, CTE, and a bevy of former players meeting tragic and alarming ends, Roger Goodell custom-fit the model once again. After years of rule tweaks, the running back position has been diminished to the point where most NFL fans could be sitting next to Le’Veon Bell and not know. This is a modern and marked change. The running back once had a stature alongside the quarterback as faces of a team; Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, and Marcus Allen are all faces fans used to immediately know. As rules were tweaked, the prioritization of the passing game severely deflated the prominence of the running game. Now the quarterback stands isolated as the most important position, and not coincidentally, their faces happen to be the only ones for which the NFL coerces sympathy.

Despite quarterbacks being the minority of players struggling with symptoms stemming from repeated head trauma, they’ve received the most protection in Mr. Goodell’s NFL. The rest are names and numbers, playing the game with a level of risk that hasn’t been altered in any significant way.

A byproduct of lopsided quarterback protections, and the resulting inflated necessity, is the whitening of a league that is over 70% non-White. Despite Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Doug Williams, and Steve McNair blazing a trail toward acceptance, the identity of Black quarterbacks has stalled under Goodell. There seem to be only two paths afforded: Russell Wilson or Cam Newton, conformity and praise versus non-conformity and mockery. The chief sin of Colin Kaepernick is that now he’s neither, making him indigestible in the ecosystem of today’s NFL.

Crimes rooted in brute and/or thoughtlessness are more easily understood, as they fit the narrative. Understanding isn’t available to Colin Kaepernick, as he’s a collection of taboos: Black at the most touted position — two available boxes; and wholly Black — none. He is, now, his awareness. It’s inescapable, thus are his pleas for humanity. We are, now, always confronted with the totality of Colin Kaepernick.

A person so pained by the awareness of his and his people’s existence in America that he cried out — first silently, then financially, now via his organization. He should be, now, impossible to separate from his activism. Roger Goodell’s NFL is unprepared to deal with such a figure, let alone validate its existence on merit, or otherwise. To acknowledge Kaepernick beyond his kneeling is to legitimize Black struggle.

For this reason, last year’s anthem protest remains the focal point of ire with which to cast Kaepernick a pariah. Despite saying, months ago, that he would no longer kneel during the anthem, the gesture remains central to his unemployment. To reinforce the way in which the NFL suggests that you view its players, it has to. If it becomes about anything else — his message, his goals, and his work with/in disadvantaged communities — a humanity is added that the NFL has not yet approved, and doesn’t know how to deal with.

This point was further crystallized at a New York Jets forum for season ticket holders. While sitting on a panel next to Roger Goodell, 21-year-old Jamal Adams confessed — with all of his lived experience — that there would be no better place for him to die than on a football field. The young safety’s comments so aligned with the sensibilities of those in attendance that Adams had to wait for applause to quiet before he could resume.

What inspired the expressions of validation was the voiced confirmation of the unwritten but thoroughly understood contract of the non-quarterback NFL athlete: players are tertiary to the entertainment they provide, and, the acknowledgment that the ability to assume great bodily risk for fans’ entertainment is a privilege.

By evolving — by learning and progressing in his beliefs, understanding of causes, and how he can help — Kaepernick has shown how devolved the NFL, and its fans, have become.