Colin Kaepernick, and the Cost of Conversation

The quarterback spoke up, and the league cast him out. So perhaps it’s time we all listened closely.

Chances are, whoever you are reading this, that you may find it hard to relate to Colin Kaepernick.

And let’s be honest, that’s perfectly understandable. After all, you have, in all likelihood, never played arguably the most demanding position in sports, at the highest level. You have not come within just a few plays of lifting the Lombardi Trophy. And you, presumably, never played a pivotal role in sparking a national conversation about racial injustice.

So yeah, chances are you may not see much of a connection, no matter who you are, between yourself and the former 49ers quarterback, turned NFL pariah.

But perhaps it’s time to start practicing some empathy, because his plight? It may belong to all of us, and sooner than you think.

In case you missed it, Kaepernick’s continued (and inexplicable) unemployment moved into its next phase this week, when news came (as first reported by Mike Freeman at Bleacher Report, and later confirmed by attorney Mark Geragos), that the QB was filing a grievance under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, alleging collusion on the part of the league’s owners to keep him from an active roster.

As noted by Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann, amongst many others, the grievance is, if you’ll forgive the tacky metaphor, a true hail mary, a last ditch effort to seek some sort of redress for a football career that, at this point, has almost certainly come to a premature end. Colin Kaepernick will, in all likelihood, fail to procure any sort of remedy from an arbitrator, namely because collusion, as codified in the collective bargaining agreement, requires evidence of multiple teams conspiring together to keep Kaepernick on the sidelines.

And we all know by now, or at least we should, that injustice isn’t always quite so blatant. Most of the time, it finds a way to be a good bit more subtle.

Sure, make no mistake, it’s possible to imagine a cabal of wealthy old men, huddled around a table in a poorly lit, subterranean lair, slandering Kaepernick to willing beat writers, and signing a blood oath never to add him to a 53-man roster, come hell or Matt Cassel. Such a scene is not totally implausible, if only because Jimmy Haslam and Stan Kroenke and Dan Snyder and good ol’ Double J have devoted so much time and energy transforming themselves into perfect Bond villains. But in all likelihood, the powerful, moneyed interests that control professional football were a little more shrewd in their efforts to keep Kaepernick, and his message, from returning to the league, not with some secret agreement, but instead with an unspoken understanding.

That’s the way things work in the real world. Why go to all the trouble of blackballing someone, when instead, you can hide behind the vague notions of ‘distractions’, ‘controversy’, and ‘more trouble than he’s worth’. You’ve got to consider how the quarterback would fit into the system, after all, and the effect his signing might have on the business. Plus, can’t you understand how loyal we are to the quarterbacks in the room? How much trust we have in them? Of course, if all else fails, you can do what the vast majority of teams have, during this entire frustrating saga, and just ignore Colin Kaepernick altogether.

That is how, meritocracy be damned, one of the most talented, qualified, capable athletes in the world loses his livelihood over a political statement. The gates of the NFL will never be closed to Colin Kaepernick. That would be too obvious. Instead, to quote the profound wisdom of Commissioner Roger Goodell, “he’ll get that opportunity when the right opportunity comes along.”

So how about never? Is never good for everyone?

But then, as I noted at the top, chances are you lack the arm strength, athleticism, and incredible courage necessary to make you the next Colin Kaepernick. (Don’t feel bad, the same goes for me!) So, ok, fair enough, you’re unable to truly put yourself in the cleats of one of the most talked about athletes of our generation. But what if we tried something a little less glamorous? A little more accessible? A touch less physically demanding?

How about journalism!

Ah yes, proving that employers policing speech isn’t confined to the field of competition, this past week also saw the New York Times roll out its much talked about new social media guidelines. And look, in this brave new world of Snapchats, Instagrams, and… Ello? (Are we still doing Ello?), it’s understandable why a major media organization would want to have a firm policy in place. So let’s review a few of the bullet points, shall we?

In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.

Hmm. Well, ok, I guess. Except, um, who gets to decide what counts as a ‘partisan opinion’ these days? Because with President Fauntleroy in charge, taking indiscriminate aim at any person, place, or activity that might dare distract from his need for constant positive reinforcement, one might argue that the bounds of ‘political views’ have expanded recently! For example, just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that ‘I enjoy watching football,” “I think we should help those hurricane victims,” or “Hey let’s try to avoid nuclear war,” would be partisan statements. And yet here we are!

Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.

Ah, yes, most assuredly. Can’t imagine what would happen if someone at the Times took sides on whether white supremacists are, in fact, ‘very fine people’. Where would we be then!?

These guidelines apply to everyone in every department of the newsroom, including those not involved in coverage of government and politics.

Well, sure, obviously, you can’t exempt the entertainment division when we never know if Trump is going to offer Robert Pattinson relationship advice again.

We consider all social media activity by our journalists to come under this policy. While you may think that your Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram, Snapchat or other social media accounts are private zones, separate from your role at The Times, in fact everything we post or “like” online is to some degree public. And everything we do in public is likely to be associated with The Times.

Here we arrive at the heart of the matter, which is to say, quite plainly, that your social media, your expression, your free speech, is not your own, not really, not once you’ve made the decision to compromise it by, you know, getting a job. Sure, Twitter and Facebook may be an indispensable part of how we communicate today, but they’re also dangerous, particularly when they might happen to run afoul of sponsors, or partners, or some disingenuous critics looking to take a media institution down a peg. And so, for the sake of everyone involved, wouldn’t it just be a lot simpler, and safer, if we all just went on about our timelines without really saying much of anything at all?

And that, ultimately, is how we end up in our current state of apathetic complicity. For all the fears of Big Brother watching over us, our speech, our protest, our freedom itself, probably won’t be taken from us by government decree. Far more likely is that we’ll be the ones censoring ourselves, out of fear that our current employer, or our next one, is keeping an eye on our timelines, and just might prefer someone who doesn’t make any waves, offend any observers, or inconvenience anyone by pointing out the sad state of affairs that we’re slogging through each and every day. It’s not that we don’t respect your right to your opinions, per say…

It’s just that we really don’t want to have to deal with them.

On Wednesday, following a second day of NFL meetings centered around the protests, Commissioner Goodell left no doubt of his intentions, telling reporters, “We have about half a dozen players who are protesting… We’d like to get that down to zero.”

The message from the league’s power brokers could not be more clear. Yes, yes, we’ve heard you already. About police brutality. About criminal justice reform. About discrimination, in all of its forms. About an American system, economically, socially, and politically, continually built on a foundation of white supremacy. We’re listening to everything you have to say.

Now, can you please just pipe down already? We’ve got a business to run.

Colin Kaepernick, thank goodness, won’t be so easily silenced. Though his rightful place on the field has been taken from him, one might argue that his absence, (and the constant agitation of our Conniption-Fit-In-Chief), has only served to amplify his message. His collusion grievance, no matter how unlikely to succeed, still serves as further proof that one of the most important athletes of our time has no intention of going away quietly.

But here again, of course, Colin Kaepernick is different from you and I. Because he also happens to have millions in the bank, high profile attorneys, a union that stands behind him, the power of his celebrity status, and oh yeah, the incredible athletic gifts, work ethic, and on-field performance that got him to the league in the first place, that make it so obvious what’s happening here, regardless of what any arbitrator has to say.

So here, once again, we might find it a bit difficult to relate to Colin Kaepernick. Because he, thank goodness, can afford to keep making noise.

Are the rest of us truly going to be able to say the same?