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Colin Kaepernick Stands Alone

A look at football’s culture of distractions, and why social activism is exceedingly rare in the modern NFL

Getty Images
Getty Images

By now, you’ve probably seen more opinions on Colin Kaepernick than you ever thought you needed. Free-agent quarterback T.J. Yates has subtweeted him and retweeted a meme about him. Giants receiver Victor Cruz said, “I think, personally, the flag is the flag,” an extremely factual statement, if nothing else. Some fans burned Kaepernick’s jersey and then posted video of it to social media. On the other side are guys like Lions wideout Anquan Boldin, who took the everyone-can-have-an-opinion stance, one that seems to be the prevailing thought from most players in the league and, incidentally, from Kaepernick’s head coach with the 49ers, Chip Kelly.

Kaepernick, as most people are now aware, refused to stand for the national anthem before last Friday’s preseason game against the Packers. He later explained his decision to, saying, “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 reiterated on Sunday that he’ll continue to sit during the anthem.

It is only natural that Kaepernick’s stance would engender extensive debate, a story line likely to outlast the typical NFL news cycle. But the long-term significance of Kaepernick’s choice, in an otherwise dreary preseason game, goes beyond whether the QB was right or wrong: It was the rare example in which a player willingly took on the NFL’s no-distractions culture.

AP Images
AP Images

When a player takes a stand the way Kaepernick did, the tangible impact around the league isn’t just that he pissed off a former Texans backup or some Twitter eggs. It’s that he chipped away at something larger and much more frustrating: football’s brassbound culture about players speaking their minds.

“I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” Kaepernick told reporters on Sunday. “To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country — is representing the way that it’s supposed to — I’ll stand.”

Why don’t more NFL players speak out on social issues? Because the odds are stacked precipitously against anyone who does.

NFL rosters have to be shaved down to 75 players by Tuesday, meaning there will be 2,400 active NFL players, and maybe another 800 or so on the fringes of teams. It is a statistical marvel, then, that Kaepernick’s protest was so isolated on an NFL field. Take a look at the numbers alone, and it seems baffling that similar acts don’t happen often.

However, two bits of football culture work strongly against guys like Kap speaking their minds: Players are seen as disposable, and the football powers that be have a word that prevents most players from voicing their opinions — distraction.

The first part of that is pretty simple. Players have short career shelf lives and, by and large, are all right with that. Ninety players make up a given NFL roster at the start of training camp; that number is whittled to 53 by Week 1. By the time the season officially kicks off on September 8, there will be nearly half as many NFL players as there were a month ago. And guys can be cut for any reason, at any time. There are probably less than 50 guys in the league who are not one awful season away from being released from their current deals. That vulnerability keeps players from doing much in the way of activism of which a coach might not approve.

This is a league where weakness and honesty are not embraced, and where toughness and the team are emphasized above all else. When third-year Chargers running back Branden Oliver was ruled likely to miss the full 2016 season with an Achilles injury on Sunday, he said, “That’s football” and tried to smile, despite the fact that this ailment could change the course of his entire life. The idea of franchises “stashing” players on the injured reserve to save a roster spot is now considered an act of transactional genius, not a dubious move that could limit a young player’s financial ceiling. Hell, injured players are treated so poorly that it was news when the Broncos took theirs to the freaking Super Bowl.

But of course, being injured is preferable to being something that NFL types consider much worse: a distraction. And this could be the biggest hindrance for football players who aspire to express themselves in the future.

Distraction is a word that can be used in reference to roughly anything. Drew Brees characterized previous contract negotiations with the Saints as exactly that. Giants co-owner John Mara used the word when talking about kicker Josh Brown’s domestic violence investigations. A crisis manager for a recently released player accused of rape apologized for the distraction. Kaepernick was even branded as a potential distraction earlier this offseason, when his status with the 49ers was temporarily in doubt.

In short, distraction is a vague term that can mean anything that doesn’t relate to game planning for third-and-7. It’s a catch-all that ensures coaches can designate anything they don’t like as a waste of time. There’s long been a perception that NFL players don’t speak out because the coaches are part of a conservative cabal trying to drive home a specific agenda. That’s not necessarily true — coaches are just petrified of anything that doesn’t pertain purely to football. Around the league, coaches, players, and decision-makers have facilitated an atmosphere in which time devoted to football is the most valuable resource, occasionally at the expense of common sense. Packers coach Mike McCarthy once rearranged his office furniture because “well, the [new] elevators were 16 seconds slower than the old ones.”

This type of every-second-counts mentality hurts the chances of Kaepernick’s protest sparking a wave of player activists. And when asked on Sunday about whether the 2016 49ers are “talking more about trying to win a Super Bowl … or talking about this,” Kap answered: “In our free time, we have conversations about this, and that’s not something that we should be ashamed about or shy away from. We talk about football, we handle our business there, but there’s also a social responsibility that we have to be educated on these things and talk about these things.”

Consider: Kaepernick had to address the team Sunday morning and explain his rationale. Even in a show of support for his QB, teammate NaVorro Bowman hinted that Kap’s decision could “divide our team.” Jim O’Neil, the 49ers defensive coordinator, was asked Sunday if he’s had to talk to his defense about avoiding Kaepernick-related distractions. He skirted the question. “We’re focused on football,” he said.

Despite regularly taking over the news cycle, distractions rarely make a difference in the grand scheme. An extra 10 minutes spent addressing a social issue before kickoff, if a player so chooses, won’t swing a game’s outcome. A harmonious locker room isn’t a prerequisite to winning; Percy Harvin and Golden Tate literally fought each other the week before the Seahawks routed the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. And some of the worst teams in recent memory have included players that genuinely got along.

Yet that won’t stop the perpetuation of the NFL’s no-distractions culture. Most social activism in the league this year has focused on how there is a lack of social activism. For example, take Aaron Rodgers’s comments that more players should speak their minds.

That’s why, regardless of whether you feel Kaepernick’s decision to protest the anthem was honorable or shameful, it is significant. He is making the league uncomfortable because, despite thousands of players shuffling on and off NFL rosters, it rarely deals with anything like this. That says plenty about Kaepernick and plenty about football.