I’m a Middle-Aged Mom and I understand Colin Kaepernick

Doug and I with the Lombardi Trophies at the 1995 Super Bowl ring ceremony

At this time of year, my husband Doug, a 13-year-NFL-veteran and successful real estate entrepreneur, starts to have bad dreams about football camp. He’s missing a kicking shoe or the coaches are calling field goal expecting him to run on the field when he hasn’t warmed up or worse, he hasn’t kicked a ball in 10 years. Whether he’s having nightmares or not, Colin Kaepernick is at home, too, without a quarterbacking job. The internet is abuzz with why. Scott Osler of the San Francisco Chronicle opined that Kaepernick is really lousy at groveling. Another source wrote that the hard-core football fans in the heartland — and therefore NFL owners — expect “a bit more humility and proper behavior” out of their heroes. My theory: Once a player discovers the dark underbelly of the NFL and its commodification of the players (mostly men of color) and also recognizes his influence in other realms — whether in business or social change — the allure dies. Simply put, the NFL is soul-less and it’s not hard to find a more meaningful purpose.

This is me in 2017 talking about implicit bias at Harvard Law School

You’re thinking, how the hell would I know? True, I’m a middle-aged mother-of-three and a Stanford-educated attorney. Kaepernick is a professional athlete, thirty, and dating a hot radio DJ. Still, Kaepernick and I share an incredibly similar upbringing and range of experiences.

We both grew up in the Central Valley of California, not more than 20 miles apart. I grew up in Modesto and still have family there and in its southern neighbor, Merced. Nestled between those two towns sits Turlock, where Kaepernick was raised. It’s an agricultural center and the home of Stanislaus State University — not exactly the Ivy League, but a good education for local kids. Residents are overwhelming white or Hispanic. Turlock’s population is only 2% black, Modesto’s 3.4%. I can remember only two African American students in my high school class — they were twins.

Kaepernick and I are both mixed race. Kaepernick, whose biological parents are African-American and white, was raised by white parents in Turlock. I have Native American heritage on my father’s side but was raised by my mother. In college I began to learn about Native people, their oppression, and the history of racial injustice in America. I became an Ethnic Studies major at UC Berkeley and joined Poetry for the People, a group of diverse students led by June Jordan, famous for its standing-room-only, fuck-The-Man poetry readings. Kaepernick has started to explore his mixed-race identity too, as evidenced by his enormous afro and his recent trip to Ghana.

Kaepernick at a 49er press conference wearing a Malcolm X shirt

Kaepernick and I are San Francisco 49er alum. Ok, I was just a 49er girlfriend. Doug was drafted by the 49ers in 1994 and played in their last Super Bowl victory in 1995. During my time in San Francisco I lived with friends in a funky, flat-roofed house before mid-century had made a comeback. The side table in my bedroom was a cardboard box covered with a red scarf. I worked as a research assistant for a company that consulted with government agencies about minority- and woman-owned businesses. When attending games I wore baggy, brown linen shorts, an old concert t-shirt and clunky tennis shoes. The wives wore tight black leather, stilettos and a blinding number of karats. They drove Escalades, I rode the bus. Doug drove his 1986 Honda Prelude with the cracked window tinting and the sweet 80’s rims. The passenger door was broken so I crawled in and out of the window — even in the “players lot” at Candlestick Park.

Ultimately, it is was not our fish-out-of-water-ness or the misogyny of the NFL that drove me and Doug out. After being cut by the 49ers his second year, and worse, cut by the Saints after seven years of solid play, two nominations for Alternate to the Pro Bowl, and a remarkable fundraising effort to support local youth through Big Brothers Big Sisters, we learned the truth about the NFL: there is no humanity there. The illusion of loyalty — to the fans, the home town, and the players — was constantly exposed. Veterans are cut for cheaper rookies. The health of the players is an afterthought, if that.

We now know the NFL hid evidence of the long-term damage of concussions. But more subtle, equally pernicious damage to players’ bodies and minds is commonplace. The average American male lives into his 70s; the average football player lives twenty fewer years. The stress is unimaginable. The players’ jobs hinge on every play in every game. For Doug, missed field goals meant evisceration in the press and death threats from fans. In one five-year period, Doug was cut from five teams, moving our family from Minneapolis to Oakland, from Indianapolis to Tampa at Christmastime, from Oakland to New York and then finally to Chicago, where his body and my mental well-being finally said “uncle.”

Our family after a New York Jets game in 2004. (The team was Doug’s sixth in 11 years. I learned to dress a bit nicer for games by then).

Yes, the NFL pays very well. But, the average player works for only 3.3 years and has close to zero non-football career training or experience. If a player happens to have interests outside of football, this will be detrimental to his career. For instance, Doug pursued his MBA at Tulane University while playing for the Saints, which most of his coaches viewed as a distraction at best and evidence of his lack of commitment to football at worst. Contrast this to the remarkable dedication teams show to players convicted of domestic violence and other violent crimes and any semi-smart person has to think, “wait, what?”

For Kaepernick, who according to overthecap.com, earned over $43 million in his six-year career, the physical beating, the stress, and the relentless criticism (including death threats, I imagine) for commenting on one of the most important social issues of our time, it is simply not worth it anymore.

Police violence against young people of color has reached unimaginable levels and received unprecedented attention thanks to social media. I worked as a criminal defense attorney for 10 years, witnessing the inhumanity and injustice of the criminal system. The police-citizen interaction is the entry point to that system and I, like Kaepernick, simply had to do something. I co-founded a company to teach police, attorneys, judges and others complex skills to increase fairness, respect and safety. In September, 2016, we led our first training on implicit bias to a bay area police department. One month prior, Kaepernick famously refused to stand for the National Anthem before a 49er pre-season game in protest of wide-spread police brutality against people of color.

For Kaepernick to focus his energies on racial injustice in our country rather than more “proper behavior” like getting his head bashed in by 280-pound linemen or to focus on reducing violence against young men of color like himself rather than “groveling” to owners that treat him like a piece of meat, just makes sense. It is violence against people of color — going back to the genocide of Native Americans and slavery and continuing in our systems of mass incarceration — which real nightmares are made of.