Earlier this month, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell shocked the sports world by issuing a public statement in support of its black players, acknowledging their importance, and encouraging them to engage in peaceful protesting.
All of this, as former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick ironically remains unemployed to this day.
During the 2016 NFL season, Kaepernick began protesting by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. The protest, which was initially intended to draw attention to police brutality and discrimination against Black people, inspired many fellow players to follow suit in solidarity. At the same however, these protests also triggered many fans and spectators including President Trump, who pushed team owners to prohibit these demonstrations.
Even though Kaepernick’s professional resume at that time was better than many of the quarterbacks currently on NFL teams, he found himself out of a job. Later, former league executive Joe Lockhart all but admitted what we all knew: team owners viewed Kaepernick as a player who presented all kinds of business liability (https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/29/opinions/now-is-the-moment-to-sign-colin-kaepernick-lockhart/index.html). A league that took up all kinds of causes – from breast cancer awareness, to domestic violence, to paid patriotism – decided that Kaepernick’s brand of activism was bad for business.
[It’s worth mentioning here that, despite calls for “peaceful” protests nationwide including from President and First Lady Trump, Kaepernick’s peaceful demonstration was literally deemed “bad for business.”]
Fast-forward four years to 2020. After protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd took center stage both nationally and globally, the same NFL Commissioner who once idly sat by as a quarterback (arguably in his athletic prime) was being blackballed for having the audacity to protest injustice, now has a change of heart.
Naturally, Goodell’s statement drew the skepticism of those who feel it was nothing short of empty rhetoric, a failed public relations move, or – at worst – hypocritical, given Kaepernick’s unemployment status. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it also drew the ire of personalities like Trump, who continually shift the narrative of the protests in order to paint these expressions as some sort of unpatriotic disrespect.
It has been argued by both sports columnists and social justice activists alike that if Goodell wants to be taken seriously about understanding the present-day realities of black people and police brutality and to truly express his interest in helping to move forward, he should start by ensuring that Colin Kaepernick is once again employed as an NFL quarterback.
I wholeheartedly disagree.
If the NFL is truly committed to its players and wants to stand in solidarity with them, merely giving Colin Kaepernick a job as an NFL quarterback is too shortsighted. Kaepernick doesn’t belong in the middle of a huddle. He belongs in the middle of a boardroom.
We can spend hours upon hours debating Kaepernick’s abilities as a player. Fans of Kaepernick will cite his talents as a duel-threat quarterback and will mention how he came a few plays short of achieving Super Bowl immortality. Invariably, opponents will refer back to his lackluster statistics beyond that. But, I would argue that the most impactful sports figures don’t just shape their legacy by what they accomplish on the field or on the court. Instead, it’s what they accomplish away from the game that truly defines them. Michael Jordan is, perhaps, the most prolific basketball player in history. However, it was his brand marketability and the way he paved the way for the internationalization of the sport that helped to etch his legacy. Lebron James is arguably the best basketball player in the world today, but it’s his off-the-court activism and philanthropic efforts that truly make him stand head and shoulders above the rest. Even the ageless football great Tom Brady will be remembered as much for his association with Donald Trump as he will be for spearheading the New England Patriots dynasty.
In that light, the NFL should provide Colin Kaepernick with systemic opportunities to create a legacy that extends beyond how far he throw a football or how fast he can run a 40-yard dash. He has already started building his legacy of social justice without the league’s help. But with NFL resources and advocacy behind him, the sky is the limit to how far he could reach.
The league may believe they have already done their due diligence by reaching a confidential settlement to resolve the 2019 collusion lawsuit Kaepernick and others brought against them. And they may feel as if they redeemed themselves by voicing their support of black players and by acknowledging their shortcomings by keeping Kaep off of an NFL roster. However, before they offer themselves a self-congratulatory pat on the back, they still have a ways to go if they truly want to salvage their reputation.
Allowing Kaepernick to suit up in an NFL uniform is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Not only are Band-Aids a laughably ineffective solution to a much bigger problem, they are nothing but a temporary fix. Any number of things could happen to Kaep that would deem him ineffective as a player. Injuries. Limited and/or diminished skills. Younger talent. Even Father Time himself. That’s the nature of sports. Players come and players go. But power, the real opportunity to effectively promote change, isn’t something that can be read in a playbook. The executives are the ones who wield that kind of power. In a league that is woefully short on minority representation on the executive-level (not just novel partnerships like the one with Jay Z), giving a person like Colin Kaepernick a seat at the table would be the start – a true start – to moving the needle.