Colin Kaepernick Can't Win

Colin Kaepernick is heroic and hated, viable and unemployed, and generally in a place few athletes ever have to inhabit. It's everyone's fault.
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Donald Trump, reality tv show host and 45th President of the United States, is secure in his safe space: a red state football stadium packed with riled-up Trumpamaniacs. At some point over the course of his usual intermittently coherent remarks, one of his trademark topical ad libs surfaces in the word salad he’s prepared for public. The people of Louisville need something to cheer about, and by God, their redeemer is going to give it to them.

Your San Francisco quarterback,” Trump says in the mewling, naughty-boy tone he adopts when he’s about to trash talk someone not in the building. “I’m sure nobody ever heard of him…” The crowd boos lustily. They know that guy. They hate that guy. “There was an article today, 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?” He grins and mugs and pulls some who-me faces; the crowd erupts in cheers. In wrestling lingo this is known as a “cheap pop.” Those are Donald’s speciality, and the one thing he’s successfully delivered over his 11 long weeks in office. The man knows his marks, and always has. And he’s also figured out his heel.

Who was this Pavlovian quarterback the President was referring to, the one capable of inspiring such a fervently negative reaction at the slightest insinuation? Was it the infamous accused multiple-rapist? The slightly younger version? A violent abuser or a murderer? No, it was Colin Kaepernick, the be-afro’ed passer who, in an effort to kickstart a conversation about police violence in America, decided to sit down while a song played last season. It was always going to be him.

But even though Donald Trump has been known to spin a yarn or two in his day, what he said at first was fundamentally true. Kaepernick is indeed having trouble finding a new football home, and it’s got little to do with what he brings to the table athletically. The borderline insane overreaction to Kaepernick’s ongoing peaceful protest remains both sad and sadly predictable. It’s reminiscent of the furor that surrounded Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was by all accounts one of the most dynamic scorers of the time and one who might really have been something in today’s NBA, but who was similarly blacklisted for his refusal to stand for the national anthem in the mid-90’s. Abdul-Rauf went on to play basketball abroad for more than a decade, but that’s not how it works in football. The 29-year-old Kaepernick is facing down the possibility that he may not have a job anywhere in the sport next year.

As Kaepernick’s innocuous protest began, the sort of blowhard who could often be heard wondering aloud why the protesters could not simply “protest peacefully” during the mass movements that took place following the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Tamir Rice and Philando Castile and countless others decided that Kaepernick’s particular method for inspiring conversation and affecting social change, peaceful as it may be, was also unacceptable. This is not surprising, really, or not any more surprising than the fact that they were less aggrieved by Denver Broncos GM John Elway lobbying for Trump’s just-confirmed supreme court pick Neil Gorsuch on official Denver Broncos letterhead. These people, who comprise a goodly percentage of the NFL’s fan base, are very particular when it comes to the exact time and circumstances in which sports figures should “stick to sports.”

Athletes, and particularly black athletes, have always been targets of conservative ire when they dared to speak out on social issues, and this is especially true in a league that has recently styled itself as a sort of unofficial wing of the US military state. But what makes Kaepernick’s situation unique is that, in his steadfast refusal to frame his vision of social justice within the established parameters of acceptability that is the Democrat-Republican paradigm, he has also made himself an enemy of liberal America. After all, who worships the discourse more?


“You know, I think it would be hypocritical of me to vote,” Kaepernick, a resident of California, a state that Hillary Clinton won with 61% of the popular vote, said shortly after the election. "I said from the beginning I was against oppression, I was against the system of oppression. I’m not going to show support for that system. And to me, the oppressor isn’t going to allow you to vote your way out of your oppression.” It’s not an unassailable argument, but it’s one with a coherent internal logic. But this purely symbolic protest that did not in any way affect the outcome of the election was a bridge too far for a large contingent of liberal detractors.

The other side of the spectrum, of course, had already abandoned Kaepernick after his previous purely symbolic non-violent protest—which he explained in depth and backed up with seven figures of charitable donations—had made him a heretic to the nation’s red state red-asses. All of which meant that Kaepernick was now without a constituency anywhere on the spectrum. Much of this was circumstantial, of course, but it stuck. If he ever had it, Kaepernick’s refusal to get #WithHer cost him the sympathy of those who believed that, were it not for know-nothing privileged crybabies like Colin Kaepernick (not to mention that dastardly Susan Sarandon), we’d all be living in an alternate utopian reality where President Clinton sends Bill out for flan while she brunches with Amy Poehler, or whatever.

And so, two months into his unemployment and without even a room-temp rumor of a job offer on the horizon, Kaepernick now finds himself in a kind of sports media phantom zone, an avatar onto which partisans from across the political spectrum project their ideas of everything that is wrong with a certain segment of the country. He’s both “Why Trump Won” and a spokesman for the liberal celebrity strawman golem that the right wing loves to hate.

In his latest venture into activism Kaepernick has committed himself to helping feed the hungry both at home and abroad, cutting a $50,000 check to Meals on Wheels, a charity currently in the sights of Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s shared quest to starve the poor and downtrodden. Kaepernick contributed an equal amount to Love Army for Somalia, a country which is in the midst of a virtually unprecedented epidemic of drought and starvation and where official American government policy has been to send bombs in lieu of food; the nation was one of seven majority-Muslim countries flagged in Trump’s original travel ban. On the merits—significant money, worthy causes—this should be about as uncontroversial as athlete activism gets. Kaepernick is putting his money where his mouth is, as he was so often implored to do by detractors on the right that sought to brand him a race-hustling fraud. As it happens, those critics—race hustlers in their own right, if not in a way anyone’s quite comfortable recognizing—still say it’s just a stunt.

All of this is predictable, in some ways. Celebrities, just because of the way the culture works, do not quite seem as much like people as other people do. But while Kaepernick is someone millions of people watch play a popular sport on television, the real-world work of his charity is impossible to miss. He is trying to counterbalance some of the damage that the President and his Republican accomplices are attempting to inflict on some of America’s most vulnerable citizens, and as such it would make sense if #TheResistance was showering him with praise. Instead, it still doesn’t seem to be enough. At the risk of once again putting too much blame on his shoddy teammates, it just seems like Colin Kaepernick can’t win.

For now, anyway. Chances are someone will take the plunge and sign Kaepernick—he is too talented, and his performance last year was too good, for some NFL team not to buy low on what was relatively recently considered to be one of the game’s great set of skills. It’s still tough to imagine where, but we’ll most likely see Kaepernick play next season, which means we’ll see how he’ll continue to use his unique position to advocate for and start conversations on the issues that he’s passionate about.

More importantly, presuming that some team will give him a gig and a platform, Kaepernick will be able to continue to inspire his fellow athletes in their own forms of activism; culturally conservative as the NFL is, Kaepernick is not alone in this work. Indeed, he already seems to have had a profound impact on the league and sports in general in this respect, as various teammates, opponents and other athletes from around the world beginning to show solidarity in their own ways. It’s hard to say whether players like Michael or Martellus Bennett would have been emboldened to speak out the way they have in the pre-Kaepernick NFL, but it is undeniable that Kaepernick got in first, and it seems safe to say that it seems like the snowball is just starting in terms of gridiron activism.

It is for this reason, and not for what he has accomplished and might yet accomplish on the football field, that Kaepernick is destined to go down as one of the most important athletes of this generation. Decades from now, when we’re either looking back on an unenlightened era from our future vantage point with full benefit of hindsight or scowering a scorched after-earth for canned goods,  we won’t remember how Kaepernick’s stance was reviled by both the liberals and conservatives of the time. By that point, in the same way that both sides have since co-opted Muhammad Ali, one-time pariah of the civil rights era, we’ll probably see Kaepernick as a comparatively uncomplicated and politically neutral hero. If anything, his current status as whipping boy of both left and right is a sure indication that, like Ali, he is doing the right thing. It’s never as fast or as thorough as we might want, but history has a way of working things like this out.

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