Press Box: The Kaepernick Conundrum

Illustration by Iain Duffus


Illustration by Iain Duffus
Illustration by Iain Duffus

When Colin Kaepernick first knelt for the national anthem nearly a year ago, nobody anticipated the media circus that followed in his wake.

Sure, national headlines either praising or vilifying Kaepernick depicted the embattled quarterback as a lightning rod for political debate. His saga tied in neatly with election season to further stake out differences in political ideology. Kaepernick’s actions quickly became a popular topic of discussion on every news network from ESPN to CNN.

As other players joined him, the fire beneath the “Kaepernick controversy” reached full tilt. The debate became a referendum on how athletes engage in political advocacy and Kaepernick drew comparisons to historical heroes of the struggle for human rights such as Muhammed Ali and Rosa Parks.

Then the 49ers went 1-10 last season with Kaepernick under center and Donald Trump was elected president.

Even as and the Colin Kaepernick Foundation thrived in distributing resources to underprivileged youth around the country, the fire he had ignited was snuffed out by the political climate.

The media attention waned. The narrative strayed from Kaepernick the humanitarian and returned to Kaepernick the player as the rest of league took up the fight in his stead.

And now, as the regular season approaches and rosters are rounding out, Kaepernick finds himself without a job. Last week, the NAACP requested a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to “discuss possible first amendment violations regarding the employment of Colin Kaepernick,” according to Bleacher Report.    

Even his fellow players are split in their perception of the matter.

“He’s just not really that good of a player to, you know, deal with all that,” said LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bill’s lead running back. “See, people outside of sports just don’t understand that. They only see one side of it. They say, ‘ooh look, he stood up for what he believes in and now he doesn’t have a job, the NFL’s against him.’ Well, the reality is, it’s more than that.”

Eagles starting safety Malcolm Jenkins — who was one of the first players to join Kaepernick’s protest last season — had a strikingly different take on the issue.  

“I think at this point in time when you look at the quarterbacks who have jobs around the league, and the amount of owners and GM’s who have only spoken of what fans would think about his stance, it’s safe to throw out that talent argument,” Jenkins said. “Focus on the fact that he doesn’t have a job solely because he didn’t stand for the anthem last year, even though he already expressed that he planned on standing this year.”  

To be fair, Kaepernick has failed to establish any consistency throughout his career. He won three games in two years as a starter for the 49ers after their Super Bowl run under infamously player-friendly head coach Jim Harbaugh, who is now employed by the University of Michigan.

Typically, backup quarterbacks provide low-ceiling and high-floor production with a minimal risk factor. This has never been the case with Kaepernick. There are hours of tape in which coaches can observe his consistent propensity to make both great and rash plays.

Yet, there is no question a certain degree of blackballing has occurred here.

No position in professional sports is more in-demand than NFL-caliber quarterbacks, and Colin Kaepernick threw 16 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions last season, despite only winning one game.

The man should have a job based purely on performance — there is no debate to be had on that front.

However, what can be legitimately questioned is whether teams are shying away from Kaepernick as a result of the content of his message or simply due to the reality McCoy alluded to — he’s just not good enough to make the rest of his team and staff deal with the media attention that would inevitably accompany signing him.

The Seattle Seahawks were the only team who met with Kaepernick face-to-face over the offseason. Other outspoken human rights activists such as Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett call Seattle home, Russell Wilson is entrenched as their starting quarterback, and head coach Pete Carroll is widely perceived as a player’s coach.

The Seahawks appeared to be a perfect fit on surface level, and even they passed on Kaepernick.

Last week, Bennett announced his intention to sit for the national anthem before every game this season prior to doing so before Seattle’s first preseason game.

Newly unretired Oakland Raiders’ running back Marshawn Lynch likewise sat for the anthem last week, and has been doing so for years without coming under fire akin to what Kaepernick has experienced.

Bennett, Lynch and Jenkins are all still employed.

Why? Because they are not good, but great players, and like it or not that’s how it works in professional sports — if you’re good enough, you will have a job, bar none.   

So, perhaps Jenkins and McCoy both have a point. Performance may not be the question at hand, but there is a sliding scale in professional sports when it comes to how much public attention a team will endure in order to employ a player.

Yes, there are probably more than a few owners who have explicitly told their front offices not to consider signing Kaepernick because of the content of his message.

Yet, there are likely even more that openly discussed the possibility with their staffs before deciding that he cannot supply the level of performance necessary to mitigate the hoopla that will follow in his wake, the Seahawks among them.

As Bennett so succinctly put it, this is about much more than on-field performance at this juncture.

“Of course I’m going to face backlash,” Bennett said of his own protest. “This is bigger than me. This is bigger than football. This is about people. This is about bringing opportunities to people, giving people equality. This is bigger than a sport.”


Zach Joachim

Sports Editor

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