Kaepernick is the outspoken backer of the Black Lives Matter movement who sat and then knelt during the national anthem last year and cannot find a job for the 2017 season.
And the term “boy,” used by white segregationists in the American South to denigrate and belittle Black men, is no overstatement.
Team owners oversee a violent league with intense play that frequently inflicts life-long brain injuries on players.
NFL players, nearly 70 percent of them African American, are used by team owners and then discarded like unwanted property – often with broken bodies and minds – after less than three years on average.
Reluctantly, the league has agreed to a $1 billion settlement that could pay off the most injured players with as much as $5 million for a tortured deterioration into dementia and suicidal depression.
Similarly, returning US troops face inadequate and inappropriate treatment for depression, suicide risk and post-traumatic stress disorder, but white fans who roar that Kaepernick is disrespecting the troops appear to have far less to say about the wars and their consequences for US military forces, let alone for civilians in the invaded countries.
No doubt players and fans love the game, but questions are fast emerging in the minds of both about the wisdom of involvement in the sport and the morals of cheering as minds and bodies are destroyed.
The treatment of Kaepernick is apt to concentrate the minds of more players on the relative risks and rewards of football and how willing owners are to abuse players’ bodies while discounting the substance of their views.
A year ago, Kaepernick, then playing with the San Francisco 49ers, dared to protest during the national anthem, telling a journalist with NFL Media his views on police violence: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”
He added, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people [police] getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Should the regular season begin on 7 September with Kaepernick still unsigned, player leaders will have important decisions to make about how to proceed.
Questions to the NFL Players Association from The Electronic Intifada about Kaepernick’s case went unanswered.
Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett, who this offseason said he would “not be used” by the Israeli government in a planned propaganda trip to Israel, argued that Kaepernick’s treatment “shows the racial divide in the league.” He added, “Racism is the biggest issue in America.”
Malcolm Jenkins, a safety with the Philadelphia Eagles who stood with fist raised during the national anthem last season, called the NFL teams “cowards.”
Jenkins dismissed the argument that Kaepernick is no longer good enough to play in the NFL. “I think it’s safe to throw out that talent argument, and basically 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.”
Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March, but has found no team willing to sign him to a new contract.
Racism in the NFL
Meanwhile, teams have signed inferior quarterbacks, supercharging concerns of bias and even possible collusion.
Serious questions are being put to the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins following injuries to their starting quarterbacks. Baltimore, of course, has been much in the news of late on account of the sort of police misconduct Kaepernick has highlighted.
And some fans of the Dolphins along with Florida-based sports pundits have criticized Kaepernick over his views of Fidel Castro after the quarterback praised Cuba’s investments in promoting literacy and universal healthcare, as opposed to incarceration, as well as Cuba’s support for the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
The Dolphins chose to replace their injured quarterback with Jay Cutler who is widely regarded as a weaker quarterback than Kaepernick, albeit one who previously played for the Chicago Bears’ offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who is now the Dolphins’ head coach.
Cutler’s politics, in contrast to Kaepernick’s, have proven to be no obstacle. “I’m happy with the results,” Cutler said after last November’s election. “I’ve supported Trump for a while. I’m not going to dive into it. I know it’s a sensitive issue. I like where it’s going.”
These are telling and prescient remarks from a white quarterback who would come out of retirement the following year to secure a one-year contract worth $10 million in a hateful political climate nurtured by a president who has repeatedly given nods to white supremacists and has bad-mouthed Kaepernick.
But white supremacy is increasingly normalized in today’s politics; a quarterback speaking out against racial injustice is perceived as a danger by too many NFL owners.
Of course, it is not recalling ancient history to remember that this is a league that long stuck with white quarterbacks over African Americans. Black players were kept in what The New York Times’ Michael Powell termed “apartheid positions.” Seventy percent of the players in the NFL today are African American yet discrimination remains a reality when one looks at the quarterback position and coaching ranks.
Sending a message
Team owners – who are almost exclusively white – are also sending a message to other players to be very cautious about speaking up about police abuses and other issues not in line with the perceived sensitivities of white fans.
Even if Kaepernick finally gets offered a contract this summer, the message has been delivered to athletes: keep your mouths shut on social justice issues, particularly when the national anthem is being played.
Kaepernick is best known for his support of Black Lives Matter, but has wide-ranging social justice interests. For example, earlier this year he retweeted a message critical of Israeli apartheid.
Though on a San Francisco team that struggled mightily throughout last season – which likely contributes to undercutting Kaepernick’s perceived value – the quarterback’s off-the-field work was enthusiastically received in many communities.
As law professor Khaled Beydoun noted, Kaepernick held ‘know your rights’ camps for youth, pledged $1 million of his own money to nonprofits working against oppression and helped fight famine in Somalia.
Yet so far, many fans calling sports radio and writing letters to the editor have indicated they would rather field a quiescent team and lose than one calling for equality and win.
“Racial attitudes had a notable relationship to white opposition to athletes’ protests,” Tatishe M. Nteta, Brian Schaffner and Matthew C. MacWilliams wrote in The Washington Post in April.
The three political scientists said their polling demonstrates a strong relationship “between holding negative stereotypes of Blacks and strong opposition to the protests.”
Kaepernick’s calls for social justice and against police misconduct follow in the powerful tradition of athletes addressing important issues of the time. These protests have been fitful because of the powerful backlash they face.
Muhammad Ali, whose image can be seen emblazoned from time to time on a Kaepernick T-shirt, was one of the most famous of these protesters and paid a heavy price. Ali, a conscientious objector, was first stripped of his heavyweight title and then fined $10,000, banned from boxing for three years and sentenced to up to five years behind bars. He managed through appeal to stay out of prison.
Ali’s words from the time, however, live on: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” A supporter of Palestinian rights, Ali – first debilitated by Parkinson’s disease and now just a vibrant memory – is currently heralded by mainstream media that spoke against him half a century ago.
Eminent sociologist Harry Edwards, who advised Kaepernick last season, said in May: “Ali created a conversation.”
He added: “when the world champion steps forward and says, ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a (expletive), and we have some issue we need to deal with here, not over there in a war that make no sense,’ it moved the discussion to another level.”
According to Edwards, Kaepernick similarly “sparked a national conversation about race.”
Trump takes credit
For all the talk of the American “meritocracy,” there is seeming satisfaction in Trump’s America with whiteballing a superior athlete on account of his upholding the rights of African Americans and other people of color.
Even the president has not been silent on the case. Apparently peeved that Kaepernick dared to call the Republican presidential candidate “openly racist” – at the time, Kaepernick also criticized Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her racially charged “superpredator” comment – Trump told a radio program that perhaps Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.”
“It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that?” As the crowd’s roars of approval subside, Trump exults, “I just saw that. I just saw that.”
Trump has not lacked for support from NFL owners. Team owners Dan Snyder of the openly racist Washington Redskins, Stan Kroenke, Bob McNair and Shahid Kahn all contributed $1 million for inauguration festivities. So, too, did Robert Kraft who has been active in promoting propaganda trips to Israel by current and former NFL players.
Trump-connected Woody Johnson, owner of the Jets, for his part signed a weaker option in Josh McCown to play quarterback for his lackluster team. According to The New York Times, the team owner “opined that he did not think much of Kaepernick’s protest.” Notably, Johnson will be the next US ambassador to the UK.
Writing in the The Hollywood Reporter, retired basketball superstar and former US global cultural ambassador Kareem Abdul-Jabbar raised concerns about the political leanings of NFL owners as a factor in Kaepernick’s situation: “Perhaps a contributing factor is that the NFL owners tend to contribute more money to Republican political campaigns and therefore have more of a philosophical interest in not wanting to hear the players’ messages about social injustice.”
The owners undoubtedly have a friend in Trump. Not only does the president extol the virtues of getting rough with people detained by police, but he scoffs at football concussions as “a little ding on the head” that should not stop players who are supposed to be “tough.”
It remains to be seen whether we have reached a tipping point for players concerned not just about brain injuries, but their right to speak freely.
Will players such as Kaepernick, Martellus and Michael Bennett, and Malcolm Jenkins continue to speak out and find more teammates to support them or will the retaliation against Kaepernick have a chilling effect?
Edwards, the sociologist who advised Kaepernick, says, “If they are stupid enough to make a martyr out of Kaep, it’s going to get even more interesting.”
An online petition to boycott NFL games until Kaepernick is signed to a contract has already garnered over 150,000 signatures and is growing quickly.