Who is Colin Kaepernick, Really?
A closer look at some of the contradictions of the man at the center of a movement
I’ve dedicated much of my writing to Colin Kaepernick and the ongoing saga he unleashed when he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence. I’ve argued that Kaepernick’s exile from the NFL is a labor rights violation. I’ve examined how the antitrust implications of his collusion case could blow up professional sports in America. I’ve written an exposé of the lengths to which Electronic Arts went to suppress his presence in the video game Madden NFL (it went well beyond the soundtrack edits). I’ve been an ardent advocate for Kaepernick. This piece is a sharp deviation from course — one I hadn’t seen coming.
My work on Kaepernick is in part driven by the urge to fill the white space in my knowledge of him with some color. He is notoriously, frustratingly close-lipped. It’s difficult to get a clear portrait of him. I’ve come to realize that yes, that white space is there, obscuring things, but there is also a troublesome dissonance that is interfering with the image of Kaepernick I’ve been examining. That dissonance emanates from the conflicting messages Kaepernick sends about himself.
In response to one of my pieces on Kaepernick, I recently received communication from a woman called “Salome” (her name has been changed to protect her identity) claiming to have known Kaepernick during his time at the University of Nevada-Reno (UNR). She said she remembered Kaepernick in college “disrespecting women, my friends and people I grew up with.” She went on to say, “It’s hard for me to reconcile the person he is in the media with the person I saw.” According to her, Kaepernick “wasn’t a great guy.” Although she believes people can change, she said, “I’m so tired of putting aside the dishonorable side of men as leaders for the cause.”
I’m not going to share the details of Salome’s stories about Kaepernick, because, even though I believe her, I can’t confirm them. Her accounts weren’t salacious or particularly scandalous and are thoroughly plausible — they feature the careless entitlement you’d expect from a star quarterback on a college campus and the thoughtless cruelty it engenders. I mention Salome, because her difficulty reconciling the Kaepernick in the media with the young man she’d known in Reno resonated with me and got me to acknowledge the dissonance in Kaepernick’s public image I’d been unwilling to let myself see. Her messages prodded me to re-examine a few moments in Kaepernick’s more recent public life that disturbed me but that I’d brushed aside. I record the facts I assessed and my opinions about them here.
“I’m so tired of putting aside the dishonorable side of men as leaders for the cause.”
One afternoon, as I was scrolling through Twitter, a striking black-and-white photo of Chris Brown holding an “#IMWITHKAP” t-shirt came up on my timeline. The hashtag is used to show support for Kaepernick, and Kaepernick sells “#IMWITHKAP” merchandise on his website. Twenty per cent of the proceeds from the sales goes to Know Your Rights Camp (KYRC). According the organization’s website, KYRC “is a free campaign for youth founded by Colin Kaepernick to raise awareness on higher education, self empowerment [sic], and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios.” The camp is the crown jewel in Kaepernick’s philanthropic endeavors. Brown has a well-documented history of violence towards women, and I remember staring at the picture in confusion when I realized the KYRC account had tweeted it. The image was also shared on the camp’s Instagram page.
I thought it was odd and struck a clanging false note for a known abuser to be featured so prominently on KYRC’s social media, particularly with the camp’s logo watermarked on the image. Nevertheless, I soon forgot about it. Then Brown showed up in Kaepernick’s #10for10 campaign, during which Kaepernick completed his pledge to donate $1 million to charity by partnering with celebrities to match $10,000 donations to worthy causes. Including Brown in #10for10 didn’t make any sense to me, particularly not with #MeToo and #TimesUp dominating the news cycle. My distress was born of the shock of discovering that Kaepernick was one of the people who didn’t seem to care about Brown’s violent transgressions against women.
Brown is wealthy and famous. There are plenty of people who accept and embrace him and spend their time and money on him. Not including him in a highly publicized charity fundraiser isn’t “punishing” him — it’s a way to show respect, compassion, and support for women who are survivors of abuse that doesn’t require very much heavy lifting.
Be just in an unjust room. That’s something Kaepernick says from time to time. If he can’t live up to this maxim when he gets to choose who’s in the room with him, can he be expected to lead when there’s more at stake than the meagre consequences of telling a man who is violent with women: No, you don’t get to sit with us — just go and be a multi-millionaire recording artist?
Kaepernick misuses his power sometimes. That’s what Salome’s messages got me to see. Kaepernick invited a known abuser to stand with him on more than one occasion. That’s not something any of us should dismiss. I shouldn’t have dismissed it.
There are justifications Kaepernick’s defenders (of which I’m usually one) will raise. Kaepernick largely eschews social media and is trusting other people to make most of these decisions for him. That might be true, but it still goes to the caliber of person he chose to bring into his inner circle. It still tells us something about his judgment. It tells us something about what lines he’s not willing to draw. This all comes down to Kaepernick’s character, to his reputation, to his name and how he values these attributes.
If someone else is indeed orchestrating using Kaepernick and his social and political capital as image rehab for the Chris Browns of the world, that person is telling Kaepernick quite clearly that they do not respect his name as much more than currency and leverage, and he would do well to listen them and stop going along with it. Associations with people of dubious moral character are grenades with the pins jostled loose, and Kaepernick is lucky not to have been caught in an explosive news cycle. He should rethink whatever process is introducing carelessly handled munitions into his ecosystem. He should also examine what slippages in his moral center are allowing him to participate in this reputational Russian roulette.
There is a game Kaepernick is taking part in — one of manufactured closeness between high-profile people with the goal of making them all look well-connected and important so they can raise their profiles even more. I understand why he’s doing it — he has powerful enemies, and he needs powerful allies — but it reinforces the dissonance in his public image.
Do you remember when Diddy was going on about wanting to buy the Carolina Panthers and claimed he’d sign Kaepernick if he did? David Tepper, a hedge fund billionaire, ended up purchasing the majority share of the team for $2.275 billion. League rules required Tepper to put up a minimum of 30% of the sale price — that’s about $682 million. Diddy’s net worth is estimated at around $820 million, and these numbers are nearly always inflated. He would have had to liquidate over 80% of his wealth to meet the 30% requirement. The league also puts strict limits on how much borrowed cash can go towards the purchase. The process is designed to weed out anyone who isn’t a highly liquid multi-billionaire. The math of Diddy becoming a majority owner in the Panthers never added up. Nevertheless, Kaepernick got on this bizarre bandwagon and tweeted, “I want in on the ownership group! Let’s make it happen!”
Diddy eventually joined a group of other investors led by e-commerce billionaire, Michael Rubin; they were outbid. Unsurprisingly, Kaepernick wasn’t included in the group. His bitter legal dispute with the NFL made that a certainty — the league would never have approved a sale he was a part of, no matter how miniscule his participation. Kaepernick was, however, invited to hang out in Diddy’s lavish backyard and has an Instagram photo tagged #BlackExcellence to show for it.
Salome’s recollections of a college-aged Kaepernick are unflattering, but he was a diligent student at UNR, who made excellent grades and graduated with a degree in business management. He’s not a stupid man. Why didn’t he run the “how to buy an nfl team” Google search I did before leaping on board Diddy’s hype machine? How could he not realize that his legal battle with the league disqualified him from participating? Or didn’t he consider anything beyond how it would play on Twitter and Instagram, like how it would look to people who would bother to employ basic arithmetic and logical reasoning in their analysis? Was it all some sort of pseudo-troll for attention? The situation raised more questions about Kaepernick for me. Is he an intelligent, reserved man, who avoids the spotlight to focus on work in his community, or is he a deluded grasper? Is he both? Is the former a glamor meant to obscure the latter?
This incident with Diddy was more peculiar than evidence of a moral lapse, and I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it if it weren’t for one thing: when Diddy posted his video announcing his plans, it was shared on the social media of KYRC, as was his photo with Kaepernick. That’s how I first came across them— in the same place I’d found that image of Chris Brown. Kaepernick’s enthusiastic tweet about joining the ownership group was also shared there.
Every now and then, when Kaepernick and the people around him communicate, I get the sense that the purpose is to corral me into a pen of hype beasts. That’s the feeling I got with the nonsensical “Let’s buy an NFL franchise!” scenario. It’s a particularly disconcerting experience when these efforts are made through KYRC.
Kaepernick co-founded KYRC with his partner of more than three years, Nessa Diab. Diab is a radio and television personality with a syndicated radio show on Hot 97 and hosting gigs on MTV and NBC. The celebrities who visit Diab’s programs often end up on KYRC’s social media sporting “#IMWITHKAP” or “I Know My Rights” t-shirts. They also sometimes plug their projects. That’s the part that troubles me. Here are a couple of examples:
When rapper, Noreaga, was promoting his album, 5e, Diab interviewed him, and she promoted the content on her personal Instagram. Noreaga also appeared on the KYRC Instagram page, wearing an “#IMWITHKAP” t-shirt. The caption to the photo read, in part, “Make sure you support Nore and get his new album 5e.”
When Houston rap magnate, J. Prince, was promoting his memoir, he was interviewed by Diab, who publicized the interview on her personal Instagram page. Kaepernick joined Diab and Prince for a private conversation, and a photo of all three was shared on KYRC’s Instagram page. The caption read, in part, “JPrince memoir is out ‘The Art & Science of Respect.’”
There is something slippery happening here that makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I believe it crosses the line into being unethical. It’s one thing for Diab to recruit her celebrity interviewees to raise awareness for KYRC and to solicit their public support of Kaepernick (anyone with a similar platform would do the same); it’s entirely another matter to use the camp’s social media to help celebrities sell their new releases, though. This “free” marketing is using KYRC’s resources to provide very real economic benefits to businesses that aren’t related to the work of the organization. If Diab and Kaepernick want to use their personal social media accounts to promote celebrities’ projects, they should have at it. In my opinion, though, making KYRC social media a celebrity promo-run stop is an ethical breach.
To be clear: I’m not making the argument that KYRC is violating any laws or regulations; or that it doesn’t do great work; or that the staff, instructors, and volunteers don’t work incredibly hard; or that the kids who attend don’t have a valuable, uplifting experience. I’m saying that, personally, I find celebrities hawking their wares on a philanthropic organization’s social media platforms to be scheming and gross.
It also made me uncomfortable when KYRC was used to help promote Summerjam, the annual rap concert that is the marquee event of Diab’s employer, Hot 97. On her way to the event this year, Diab posted a photo of herself to Instagram, in which she teased the launch of the line of “#IMWITHKAP” football jerseys. The caption read, in part, “#SUMMERJAM READY”. The photo was re-posted to KYRC’s Instagram with the same caption. Kaepernick also shared the photo on Twitter, including the entire caption. Hot 97 shared Diab’s photo with a different caption that didn’t mention KYRC but teased the jersey launch. There is nothing on KYRC’s social media to indicate that the organization had a presence at Summerjam outside of its co-founders attending. When the “#IMWITHKAP” jerseys became available for sale, Hot 97 promoted them on the station’s Instagram page by sharing Kaepernick’s announcement, which included the information that part proceeds went to KYRC.
These matters are thorny because Diab is paid a salary by Hot 97. Her duties include promoting the station and its events. The station obviously promotes her. It’s the insertion of KYRC — a philanthropic organization — into the exchanges, and it providing marketing for a for-profit entity’s mega-event without being transparent about who is being rewarded, how, and for what that muddy the ethical waters for me.
In what I believe is a particularly egregious breach of ethics, KYRC’s social media also promoted the launch of Diab’s late, late night talk show on NBC in what was a straight-up advertisement not only for her show, but other NBC programs. It was free marketing for a mega corporation. The caption on Instagram read, in part, “Catch my premiere episode of @talkstoop on NBC tonight right after SNL and 1st Look.” Most of the other incidents I’ve discussed at least made some connection to KYRC and its work.
All these episodes form part of a pattern of KYRC sometimes being subsumed into Diab’s professional persona, and Kaepernick helping facilitate it.
KYRC not being used as a marketing platform for for-profit interests is a bright line I believe shouldn’t be crossed. If celebrities and corporations want to donate money, provide sponsorship, promote the organization, and send people over to smile and take pictures, that’s fine. There’s a clear blueprint for how a philanthropic organization should allow itself to be used to help market private businesses. How Diab has gone about managing the crossover between her professional obligations and KYRC is way outside the lines, in my opinion. Kaepernick’s participation demonstrates that he co-signs all of this. How public-facing and proudly trumpeted these transgressions are and how directly involved Diab and Kaepernick are in their execution make me suspect that these oily ethics may have oozed themselves into other facets of KYRC.
It’s unlikely that Kaepernick is the architect of KYRC’s social media strategy — celebrities of his stature farm this work out. Nevertheless, the proverbial buck stops with him, and he participates. That’s him in the picture with J. Prince alongside a caption promoting Prince’s book. Just like it’s his name on the backs of the jerseys that were being burned and now on the t-shirts Nike can’t keep in stock. It will be his name in the history books. That’s what I really don’t get about this… slackness I’ve observed. How can whoever is orchestrating all this not have put it together that Kaepernick’s integrity has to be preserved at all costs? That the likes and retweets are irrelevant when measured against it? That he is leagues more important than any of the people whose books and albums he’s helping peddle? How can Kaepernick himself not see this?
Salome’s messages highlighted this conflict for me. She got me to take a much closer look at the enterprise that is Colin Kaepernick™ and pose the uncomfortable question: are these social media miscues merely poorly thought-out communication strategies, or does it go deeper? Am I observing people stumble through the exertions of trying to meet an ethical bar they’ve set too high for themselves? Does my inclination to believe it’s the former have anything to do with the facts I have at my disposal, or is it my ego not wanting to admit that I may have been manipulated?
One of the most difficult things about growing up is truly getting a grasp on how many people do the right things for the wrong reasons. Perhaps I’m casting a jaundiced gaze upon all this, but I sometimes wonder if Diab and Kaepernick are such people.
I have a layperson’s interest in psychology, and I’m particularly fascinated by the machinations of manipulative people. The term “gaslighting” gets thrown around a lot whenever a public figure is caught lying. Gaslighting isn’t simply lying, though. And it’s not simply lying to manipulate or control others. The lies are predicated on undermining reality and creating a false one.
In March of 2017, just before Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Kaepernick would stand for the anthem in the upcoming season. The information was attributed to “sources” (Schefter’s have historically been impeccable). Neither Kaepernick nor anyone in his camp denied the report, and Kaepernick’s agents did not respond to requests for comments on the matter. The story was widely reported outside of sports media.
In October of 2017, CBS’s Jason La Canfora sat down with Kaepernick, Diab, and Kaepernick’s trainer. In his report, La Canfora, stated that Kaepernick would be standing for the anthem going forward. Kaepernick hadn’t discussed the matter with La Canfora, though, and La Canfora failed to make it clear that he hadn’t posed the question directly to Kaepernick. It was a big mistake, and it caused plenty of confusion and a cascade of incorrect reporting from other outlets claiming Kaepernick had told La Canfora he would stand for the anthem. La Canfora later issued a clarification in a tweet thread and explained that he was relying on reporting from earlier in the year, reporting Kaepernick hadn’t refuted but that La Canfora couldn’t confirm.
When La Canfora’s report aired, Diab tweeted, “The reports that Colin will stand for the anthem are completely false! He has not discussed this with anyone.” All right. But where were the indignant, pearl-clutching protestations when Kaepernick was opting out of his contract, and it seemed like the widely reported news of the compromise might help get him signed? Diab’s tweet is incredibly misleading and relies heavily on the removal of context.
The reports that Kaepernick said he would stand for the anthem had been percolating for months with absolutely no pushback until La Canfora repeated them in a way that made their attribution to Kaepernick seem concrete. I don’t find it plausible that Diab didn’t know about the reports before La Canfora’s segment aired or that it’s chance that she repudiated them only after they brushed up too close to Kaepernick. The whole thing smacks of trying to play both sides to me. At some point, how this all got started may come to light. If it does, I think Diab could regret being so adamant that Kaepernick never discussed standing for the anthem with anyone. That’s very different from saying he never discussed it with Jason La Canfora.
Kaepernick’s response to La Canfora’s report was more oblique than Diab’s, but a similar patina of eliding misrepresentation was present as well. He too didn’t repudiate the reports until they got too close for comfort. Quoting Winston Churchill, Kaepernick tweeted, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.” The resulting backlash from Diab and Kaepernick’s tweets prompted La Canfora’s clarification.
When Diab and Kaepernick launched their rally of tweets, which included sharing them to KYRC’s social media accounts, I remember stopping to think if I really remembered what I’d remembered. Diab and Kaepernick seemed so righteously angered to have Kaepernick’s honor besmirched, and I was so inclined to believe them that I wondered if I’d somehow egregiously misconstrued or even outright invented the reports I’d seen saying Kaepernick would stand for the anthem. If the implication were so offensive, surely they would have said something before. I hadn’t misconstrued anything. The “Am I crazy?” feeling was exactly what I’d experienced when I’d been gaslit in the past.
I understand why Diab and Kaepernick would have been upset by the muddied communication from La Canfora and the mess it created. It made Kaepernick look bad at an inopportune moment, and they probably thought he’d dodged a bullet when nothing unpleasant came up in the conversation. It torpedoed what should have been a good news cycle for Kaepernick. In response, Diab and Kaepernick created the impression that La Canfora constructed an untruth out of whole cloth when he hadn’t. There was a way to have demanded a correction and do so firmly, perhaps even harshly, without holding La Canfora out as a liar to their millions of social media followers, many of whom are sensitive to any slight against Kaepernick. I think Diab and Kaepernick owe La Canfora an apology.
I also think it was unethical of Diab and Kaepernick to have used KYRC’s social media accounts in their campaign against La Canfora, and I would feel the same way about this point even if La Canfora had actually lied. The organization isn’t an extension of its co-founders — it is a separate entity with a mission that precludes it from being used in certain ways. KYRC’s goodwill shouldn’t be applied to litigating Diab and Kaepernick’s personal grievances.
It sometimes feels as if a cult of personality is developing around Kaepernick, and the only thing stopping it from taking off like a rocket ship is Kaepernick’s introversion. Nevertheless, it also feels like the efforts of a narcissist are at work in everything I’ve discussed. Part of that is someone of Kaepernick’s considerable celebrity submitting himself to the mechanisms of social media, which are designed to be exploited by people who crave the spotlight and are committed to standing in it. How determinedly Kaepernick usually avoids the bright lights and doesn’t fully co-operate with this machinery may be what’s managed to keep the operation around him on the rails. That’s changing. KYRC is pumping out more social media content, and Kaepernick is poking his head out more. I don’t think he should. Until he gets a handle on whatever is driving the dissonance in his public image, eliminates the problem, and establishes a firmer ethical framework around him, I think he should take several pages out of Kawhi Leonard’s criminally under-read book and sit quietly somewhere.
I was hesitant to write about some of this, because of how entwined Diab is in the ethical tangles I’ve discussed. Nevertheless, there was no way to talk about much of this honestly without discussing her role. She’s an ambitious woman who works in media, and she is looking to be in the spotlight and build and maintain relationships with people in the entertainment industry.
If there’s a woman to blame anywhere in the picture, she’ll be made to pay the price for a man’s mistakes. I know what kind of backlash against Diab all this information tees up. Kaepernick turned thirty-one over the weekend. He isn’t a child, and Diab isn’t his mother. If you’re inclined to rev up your engines to start calling Diab a treacherous harpy or whatever gendered insults come to mind, interrogate the urge to put most of this on her. Consider that the argument you’re making is that a grown man we’re being told is a civil rights leader lacks the agency to have a mature discussion with his partner and set clear boundaries about the way his public image is managed. Kaepernick is more famous than Diab; he is wealthier; he is more powerful. He is ultimately responsible for all of this.
If I had to put money on it, I’d bet that Kaepernick has grown and evolved considerably over the years and is a better person than the callow, young man Salome says she knew years ago in Reno. I’d also bet that he has regrets about some of his behavior during that period of his life. But the truth is: I don’t know. Given everything I’ve discussed here, I think it’s time I accepted my ignorance on these points and shifted my opinions into neutral where some of Kaepernick’s personal qualities are concerned.
This hasn’t been a call-to-arms or an attempt to raise a pitchfork-wielding mob. I’m not trying to take down a “Black King” who’s going to try to buy Nike one day. I’m not trying to “cancel” anyone. I’m saying that I’m not privy to enough information to know if Kaepernick is who he presents himself to be. I’m also saying that the manner in which he presents himself at times — publicly supporting a known abuser, being slick with the truth, those cringey “cop this album” posts on KYRC’s social media — are part of what created niggling suspicions about him in my mind. I’ve refrained from discussing these suspicions publicly until now.
None of this affects my stance on Kaepernick’s collusion case against the NFL or the status of his employment. I believe he was wronged grievously. I believe he was right to seek legal redress. I believe he has a good case, and I hope he prevails and gouges every penny he’s owed and more out of the NFL. I hope he plays again. Kaepernick sparked an important conversation about America’s failure to address its racist underpinnings. He has paid an incredibly heavy price for his choice to speak out — his career was ransomed; it is still being held hostage. I will always support him in trying to right these trespasses against him.
In spite of my doubts, I’m not asking Kaepernick to be flawless. There is no humanity in perfection. If Kaepernick is who he claims to be, though, he needs to tighten up. Self-serving ethical shortcuts that seem minor have a way of piling on top of each other, then tumbling into catastrophic avalanches at the least opportune moments. Kaepernick should have words with some of his advisors, and perhaps even a cleaning of house is in order. The filters he’s put between himself and the world are malfunctioning. It’s too early in their failure for the alarms to be sounding, but if he doesn’t make changes, there may be a spectacular implosion of everything he’s trying to build.
Kaepernick’s team needs a “Come to Jesus” moment focused on a single realization: Social media isn’t “branding” — it is the writing of history in real time. Those posts on Kaepernick’s and KYRC’s social media accounts aren’t public relations — they are primary historical documents, and they need to be truthful; they need to be constructed ethically. Kaepernick needs to have some awkward conversations. The pitches of celebrities’ projects on KYRC’s social media need to stop, as does other marketing activity. In addition, whoever keeps raising their hand and shouting out “Chris Brown” should be told to go and sit in the back of the class and complete some remedial coursework — that is the wrong answer to the question of what alliances Kaepernick needs to form.
Kaepernick’s close friendship with Eric Reid and the fierce loyalty Reid shows him allay some of my concerns. Reid is forthright and seems animated by fidelity to the truth. His unvarnished directness may rub some people the wrong way, but since his return to the NFL, watching him speak bluntly and cut so precisely through all the bullshit has been refreshingly bracing. He’s like a pealing church bell. When the chips are really down, people with Reid’s fortitude will be there. The Chris Browns of the world won’t, and Kaepernick should stop wasting his social and political capital on them. How courageous Reid is also gives me hope. Kaepernick is in the midst of a great battle. Reid’s presence in his life at least lets me know he has a true comrade-in-arms. The flailing around Kaepernick has done shows that he doesn’t have a wartime consigliere. Reid may be the compass that points him towards one.
I nearly didn’t publish this, because my instinct to protect Kaepernick is visceral. I’ve seen the forces that have amassed themselves against him, how powerful they are, how frighteningly unhinged certain factions of them are. I can’t bear the thought of giving those workers of iniquity any ammunition, of seeming even the slightest bit aligned with them. Nevertheless, Salome was right: we too often overlook that men who take up the mantle of leadership have histories of mistreating women and that they cover up for themselves and other men who’ve done the same and worse. We grant them concessions they haven’t earned. We have a duty to examine these and other flaws in their characters more thoroughly. I’ve tried to do that fairly and without sensation with Kaepernick.