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The NFL Silenced Colin Kaepernick but Did Not Break Him

The league negotiated an end to its fight with football’s most famous protester. But what does it mean for the movement Kaepernick inspired?

Profile illustration of Colin Kaepernick’s head Ringer illustration

It hit with no warning at 2 p.m. ET on Friday: The NFL announced a cease-fire in its war against Colin Kaepernick; the two sides had reached a settlement in Kaepernick’s labor grievance against the league. The stakes of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s fight with the NFL have always been understood by those who recognized the risk a black athlete takes when he challenges the NFL’s power structure. And we feared for Kaepernick and his fight for equality—feared that everything he stood for would be dismissed, laughed at, and engulfed by a patriotic uproar. With this settlement, the NFL negotiated an end to this war and dethroned the king of the movement.

I’m left with a familiar feeling of disgust. The corporate-athletic complex, purportedly among our most meritocratic institutions, is ruled by entrenched power brokers willing to leverage any asset at their disposal to preserve their influence. It seems that NFL owners assumed they could eliminate the threat posed by Kaepernick’s protest of racial injustice by removing him from the game. When that failed, they employed another trick in their arsenal: They negotiated. It is no wonder he never stood a chance.

It was lawyers who ended the war. When they arrive, money follows, the stakes change, and the balance of power is often restored to those with more money and more lawyers. Kaepernick’s attorney, Mark Geragos, and the NFL’s representatives said that after “ongoing dialogue” all pending grievances had been resolved. Kaepernick filed his collusion grievance under the league’s collective bargaining agreement in October 2017. The resolution to the yearslong conflict is now sealed away because of a confidentiality agreement. Unless either party wishes to bring back the lawyers, no one involved in one of the biggest conflicts in NFL history will talk about how it was ended. While we don’t know the terms of Kaepernick’s settlement, it can be viewed as payment for lost wages and a cheap solution for a corporation unwilling to countenance dissent from its employees. The NFL no longer wanted to pay Kaepernick for his labor, so it purchased his silence. It is unlikely he will ever play in the league again, as his former 49ers teammate Eric Reid, who settled his own grievance against the NFL as well, said last Monday. “Knowing what I know, my hope tank is on E,” Reid said.

Believing that Kaepernick could win a collusion case against one of the country’s most powerful private entities was always a naive dream. It’s difficult to compel companies to admit wrongdoing, but a settlement can be considered a tacit admission of guilt. Perhaps the NFL thought there was a chance, no matter how small, that it could lose. White-owned enterprise is designed to protect its power, not dole it out to the unprivileged class.

So has the movement within football to fight for black lives ended with the resolution of a labor dispute? Much of Kaepernick’s power came from his silence. He was met with unrelenting support despite saying very little publicly. That same silence is now debilitating. It has been co-opted. The silence that once moved people to protest in streets and stadiums is now contractually binding. It was always unlikely that Kaepernick was going to receive a favorable judgment, but I’m conflicted by this outcome—it feels both freeing and prohibitive. Has the power of the protester been diminished by this? If Kaepernick and Reid have agreed to end their grievance, are the black bodies who joined them in protest subject to those terms?

It’s impossible to know what will come next. It appears the NFL’s objective in this matter has been to eliminate player expression and suppress disruption. Kaepernick yielded under this weight. And whatever remuneration he received doesn’t matter. This dispute was about power and how it is brought to bear on the individual. And power reigned supreme.

We don’t know what happened during the negotiations between Kaepernick and the NFL, which is monumental in how we think about the future of protest in football. The statement given by Kaepernick’s lawyers and the NFL relies on an ominous “matter.” The joint statement says: “The resolution of this matter is subject to a confidentiality agreement so there will be no further comment by any party.”

Does “this matter” mean Kaepernick and Reid can no longer discuss protest? Does “this matter” mean they cannot publicly opine about NFL collusion? Does “this matter” mean that Kaepernick and his supporters can no longer protest? It is inconclusive, and this obscurity benefits the NFL. This settlement is best understood by how it allows the NFL to turn a controversy into a victory. It would be a desirable outcome for the NFL if Kaepernick were to never play again. Expunging a dissident from America’s athletic church seemingly means more to the power brokers protecting football than any offensive explosion or television ratings boom. Equally, it is a message: that black protest is, has, and will always be unwelcome, and any challenge to the established order will be met with extreme force to eliminate the threat and deter anyone else from taking up the cause. The NFL used commerce as a weapon to stifle black protest, all for the sake of protecting the shield. Kaepernick and his message were dangerous, and censoring him came at a price. But now business can continue, unencumbered by agitating employees.

It’s important to note how much NFL owners wanted to rid themselves of the problem posed by black protest. In a meeting between players and owners in October 2017, owners expressed concern about public anger over the protests and President Donald Trump’s continued criticism of players kneeling during the national anthem, according to secret recordings obtained by The New York Times. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” according to a report from ESPN’s Outside the Lines. (McNair later apologized.) “The owners still wield almost all of the power in the NFL,” Ben Carrington, professor of sociology and journalism at the University of Southern California, said in an interview with Vox in September 2018. “The real threat that Kaepernick posed isn’t that he’ll bring more attention to police brutality or racial injustice; it’s that he’ll mobilize players and encourage them to assert their rights in a way that’s similar to the NBA. That’s what really scares the NFL.”

Kaepernick scared NFL establishment, which makes his compromise so difficult to accept. Had Kaepernick succeeded in proving that owners colluded against him, the NFL would have had to bend to the will of its players. If he were to lose, the entire movement would go bust. His failure would have thwarted the actions of every remaining protesting player. The powerful would become even more emboldened to ensure his example would not be followed.

Kaepernick faced long odds; there was no precedent to his challenge in the NFL. He, too, must have felt that if there was a possibility he could lose, it was crucial to settle rather than take his chances in arbitration.

Craig Hodges knows what it feels like to be removed from a league because one’s politics do not align with the white power structure employing him. In his autobiography, Long Shot, he described how, in 1988, he was traded in the middle of the night by the Milwaukee Bucks to the Phoenix Suns, which he thought was a response to his efforts to encourage his teammates to meet with leaders in the black community to discuss oppression. The Suns immediately put him on the injured reserve.

“It was disheartening,” wrote Hodges, who had a 10-year career. “A young kid from the projects who scared the front office of an NBA team? The idea was difficult to comprehend. I felt the structure must be built on shaky foundations if someone like me could be perceived as threatening.”

Hodges went on to play for the Chicago Bulls, where he won two championships, in 1991 and 1992. He never played in the NBA again after the 1992 season, which he believed was punishment for his outspoken political beliefs. He filed a lawsuit against the NBA in 1996 alleging racial discrimination, but it was dismissed on the grounds that it was filed too late.

Kaepernick, unlike Hodges, decided on a truce. It is not a betrayal to reach a settlement in a dispute in which one was wronged. It is the most honest thing one can do when faced with steep odds. Kaepernick’s grievance was never about his desire to play, or whether he was still capable of competing at a high level, or whether he respects the troops, or “The Star Spangled Banner,” or the flag. It was an answer to a simple question: Did the NFL violate its rules by preventing a black employee protesting systemic racism from making a living because the league could not accept dissent?

It’s easy to be angry about the NFL’s conduct toward Kaepernick, but where the league’s gatekeepers would fail is if they believe that money could end the movement he has set into motion. By taking a knee, Kaepernick brought attention to the fight for the betterment of black lives and served as the inspiration for this era of athlete activism. Loud voices are suppressed because they often have the power to imperil the rule of the oppressor. Kaepernick has been muted, but if the movement he emboldened continues, his silence will not have been in vain. Just imagine how uncomfortably Kaepernick’s critics will cringe when they remember the moment he took on the NFL’s apparatus of power and, through sheer force of will and conviction, bent the league to its knees.