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The NFL Takes a Knee on Colin Kaepernick

Is he being blackballed or is he just not good enough to play for a team? The NFL’s biggest offseason controversy is all speculation and few answers.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

I thought I’d read everything about Colin Kaepernick. He’s being blackballed by the NFL. Actually, he isn’t. He wants to be a social activist more than he wants to play football. Nope, he wants to play. Kaepernick was secretly a good quarterback in 2016. He sucked.

But it was optimistic to think these were the only conflicting narratives that were placed on Kaepernick’s shoulder pads. Because I hadn’t read this: “Given that Trump won the election by roughly 77,000 total votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin … is it really inconceivable to think that 38,500 football fans … could have flipped their votes from Hillary to Trump based on their disgust with Kaepernick’s protest and the fawning coverage he received from the liberal sports media? I don’t think so.”

Sportswriters often use athletes as empty Word documents on which to input their own political beliefs. Even so, Kaepernick may be the first athlete accused of accidentally electing a president.

If you’re confused by what you’re reading about Kaepernick this offseason, you’re not alone. The Kaepernick story is testing the limits of NFL insiderdom — the idea that we can know everything that goes on in the league behind the branded press-conference backdrops. I think I know what’s going on with Kaepernick. Flapping my tongue on a podcast, I would probably swear to it. But the nature of the Kaepernick story makes it hard to prove anything with 110 percent certainty, even for the league’s best reporters. So we’re all having an argument.

Kaepernick’s story has been a source of not only political but factual contention since August, when he first took a knee on the sideline to protest police violence. Kaepernick was a “traitor,” one anonymous front-office type told Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman. Another executive, in Freeman’s paraphrase, said “he hasn’t seen this much collective dislike among front office members regarding a player since Rae Carruth.” Carruth, the former NFL wide receiver, was convicted of conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend in 1999.

Was the sentiment Freeman reported true? Sure. But how many NFL teams shared it? A few? Half the teams in the league? That question remains hard to answer even today. As if to prove how murky such questions are, multiple sources offered Freeman the bum prediction that Kaepernick would soon be cut. In fact, he started 11 games last year.

The fog drifted into the offseason. (See Dom Cosentino’s excellent state-of-play piece in Deadspin for a breakdown.) First, in March, four days before the NFL’s “legal tampering” period, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported — via “sources” — that Kaepernick would stand for the national anthem this season. Kaepernick was allegedly satisfied that he’d started a dialogue, and, as Schefter put it, “no longer wants his method of protest to detract from the positive change he believes has been created.” (Kaepernick’s former allies called him a “hypocrite” and a “pretend protestor” because of his reported decision — an almost perfect echo of the taunts Kaepernick heard from the right for not voting in the election.)

The big question about free agency was whether Kaepernick’s activism would cost him a job. But how do you judge that? Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group drew the line when Blaine Gabbert got a contract before Kaepernick. Speaking judiciously on The Rich Eisen Show, Freeman said that “normally guys like [Kaepernick]” — a.k.a. former Super Bowl quarterbacks who are 29 years old — “get snapped up in the first wave of free agency. … Something is clearly going on here.” Meanwhile, Roger Goodell insisted that nothing was going on with Kaepernick — teams were just making “individual decisions.”

The MMQB’s Peter King reported that the 49ers’ front office wasn’t sure Kaepernick wanted to play football. The Nation’s Dave Zirin, who spent time with Kaepernick this offseason, countered that King’s sources were merely doing the NFL’s bidding — that is, drawing attention away from the blackballing.

Even Kaepernick’s allies couldn’t agree on how many teams had reached out to him. Kaepernick’s adviser, the esteemed Harry Edwards, said three. His girlfriend, the DJ and television personality Nessa Diab, said none. Kaepernick visited the Seahawks on Wednesday, bringing the total to at least one.

The uncertainty around Kaepernick’s story is enhanced by the fact that he isn’t talking much. He isn’t affirming Schefter’s report about not kneeling during the anthem or confirming whether he wants to play football or letting a sympathetic E:60 reporter tape his workouts (which, King reported in a do-over, were apparently wide ranging).

In that piece, King wrote that Kaepernick “needs to be heard from.” Such a plea is partly self-interested: Every NFL writer would love to score the interview. It’s also a cry for help: If reporters are going to step off a cliff and charge NFL teams with blackballing Kaepernick, they’d love for the victim to come out and say they’re right.

The Kaepernick story is weird but not unique. It reminds me a lot of the writing about Michael Sam, who in 2014 became the first openly gay player in NFL history. The debate about Kaepernick is whether he’s good enough to be a backup. With Sam, who was drafted in the seventh round, the argument was whether he should have been an early- or mid-rounder (and was thus the victim of bigotry and fear) or whether he was barely draftable (and thus overrated by people who wanted him to succeed).

Sam, like Kaepernick, was a magnet for conspiracy theories. And as with Kaepernick’s political activism, Sam’s genuineness was questioned. It might seem absurd to ask such questions about human sexuality. But I hadn’t read this: “Was the whole thing a stunt designed by a subpar player to increase his draft stock and denounce his doubters as bigots? Absolutely.”

As Mike Freeman told Rich Eisen, the battle over Kaepernick’s quarterbacking is probably best understood as a proxy battle over Kaepernick’s politics. If a writer thinks Kaepernick’s protest had merit, he also probably thinks Kaepernick is good enough to get a job as a backup. If the writer thinks Kaepernick’s activism was a fraud, he probably thinks he’s not good enough to bother with.

So what should we think? Well, the best and most information-rich piece I read this offseason is the one by The Nation’s Zirin. He hung out with Kaepernick at a Know Your Rights Camp in Chicago — a place Adam Schefter and Peter King don’t visit on their daily rounds. Kaepernick stood in front of students, talking like a community organizer. “So if an officer stops you, what do you say?” he asked.

“Am I free to go?” the students said in unison.

The rapper Common dropped by the forum to compare Kaepernick to Muhammad Ali. Kaepernick gave the students DNA ancestry kits so they could better explore their roots. There were “breakout sessions,” Zirin reported, about “holistic health.” If Kaepernick’s activism is a put-on, it seems like a hell of a lot of effort.

After the forum, Zirin interviewed Kaepernick. But Kaepernick wanted to talk about social justice, not the NFL’s hot stove league. Perhaps he didn’t want to gin up another “distraction” and give a team another excuse not to sign him.

“One thing we did not talk about was whether he was being politically blackballed by the league for his political ideas and activism,” Zirin wrote. “There was no need.”

I think Zirin is right. We have prima facie evidence that Kaepernick has been blackballed. But without knowing for sure, sportswriters are going to continue to argue about this until everyone takes a knee.