The idea of a social death is deeply rooted in history. It involves the exclusion of a person from society. They are stripped of their identity and confined to a state of alienation in the name of submitting to an infallible power. It’s a form of branding, a reminder of one’s inferiority, and it can be a fate worse than physical death: A person is pardoned from perishing but lives to see their hopes and their humanity extinguished. Even if it isn’t named as such, governments and powerful entities have labeled scores of sinners similarly throughout history, socially segregating them from the rest of society.
In 1982, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson provided a racial context for the theory in his book Slavery and Social Death. Slavery, Patterson wrote, was not merely about dishonoring or devaluing black people through physical violence, economic exploitation, or political disenfranchisement—it was a wholesale attempt by the white establishment to render black peoples’ lives meaningless, unworthy of dignity or respect. “The slave could have no honor because of the origin of his status, the indignity and all-pervasiveness of his indebtedness, his absence of any independent social existence, but most of all because he was without power except through another,” he wrote.
Patterson viewed social death as a more nuanced manifestation of how power conspired to defile the black body, a debasement, he argued, that did not end when slavery was abolished. A form of this social exclusion still exists; black people are turned away when their demands and desires do not align with the guardians of our institutions. The author Cornel West offered his interpretation of Patterson’s theory in his crudely titled 2007 Atlantic piece “Niggerization.”
Colin Kaepernick will soon conclude his third year in NFL exile, and his return appears as unlikely as ever. His confrontation with the league places him among a long lineage of black athletes who were subject to pushback and retaliation for their robust dissent. Resistance has been a feature of the black experience in U.S. sports throughout history. Athletes have fought to upend the status quo, but those efforts have consistently been opposed by the power brokers intent on keeping them as lessers. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, but the indignities he endured almost broke him. Jack Johnson, a heavyweight champion at the height of the Jim Crow era, found himself in the crosshairs of law enforcement due to his relationship with a white woman who would become his wife. Johnson was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison in 1913 for violating the Mann Act. He fled the country for several years before returning to serve his sentence in 1920. Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges handed a letter to President George H.W. Bush at the team’s White House visit expressing concern at the administration’s treatment of the impoverished and people of color. Hodges was waived by the Chicago Bulls the same year and never played in the NBA again.
Kaepernick, the standard-bearer of this decade’s era of athlete activism, brought the protest against racial injustice and police brutality into the athletic arena when he first kneeled during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2016. His fight with the NFL has never been about football, and his banishment from the league is not about his talent or his readiness to play. Kaepernick has paid a price, one he acknowledged he was willing to pay at the onset of his demonstrations, for introducing uncomfortable truths and demanding accountability and action. The movement he started in the NFL still exists, but it is a shell of its former self. He has not been silenced, but his voice is muted. He is breathing, but inoperative. He has suffered a form of social death.
“It’s over,” Grand Valley State University professor Louis Moore, a sports historian focusing on the intersection of race and sports, told me in January. “The mass movement of NFL players that we saw in 2017 isn’t coming back.” Moore’s skepticism proved to be prescient. Kaepernick was all but invisible for much of this season. Occasionally, he posted videos of his workouts online, but there was little reason to speak his name and scant evidence of the movement he started. Far fewer athletes have protested in 2019, and even those who did, like Panthers safety Eric Reid, were nowhere to be found on television broadcasts. Outside of a few pictures or mentions on internet forums, the protests have almost entirely faded from view. Perhaps you might see Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills on one knee, or Dolphins wide receiver Albert Wilson kneeling behind a gang of linemen, but the numbers that once were a part of Kaepernick’s ranks have dwindled.
Despite spending another year outside of the NFL’s bubble, several events in 2019 seemed to offer a sign that a détente was possible between Kaepernick and the NFL, and that some of the obstacles standing in the way of his return might be cleared. In February, Kaepernick and Reid settled their collusion lawsuit against the NFL for an undisclosed amount. In September, the league hired billionaire rapper Jay-Z, who stressed his solidarity with Kaepernick’s cause, but who ultimately adopted the dogma of the gatekeeper, saying, “We’ve moved past kneeling.” The partnership between Jay-Z and the league is a marriage born of mutual convenience, hastening the corporatization of football’s protest movement—Kaepernick’s message is supplanted by the league-funded Players Coalition and the NFL’s adopted mantra of “protest to progress.”
In October, Kaepernick’s representatives released a statement addressing what he called “so many false narratives” about his desire to play in the NFL. It reportedly caught the attention of commissioner Roger Goodell, which led to the most significant moment of Kaepernick’s year. On November 12, the league office sent a memo to all 32 teams stating that a private workout would be held for Kaepernick in front of NFL coaches and executives on November 16 in Atlanta. Kaepernick’s team was caught off guard by the hastily arranged workout, and they were suspicious of the league’s motives. They asked to reschedule it and for the league to provide a list of who would be in attendance—both requests were denied. After several days of negotiations and disputes over the details of the workout, including the liability waiver Kaepernick was asked to sign, his team changed the site hours before it was scheduled to begin. Kaepernick worked out for 40 minutes in front of representatives from eight NFL teams at a local high school. “We have nothing to hide,” he told reporters afterward. “So we’re waiting for the 32 owners, 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them stop running. Stop running from the truth. Stop running from the people.”
Despite the NFL’s insistence that it was acting in good faith, the workout seemed like a calculated scam, a show for clemency, not unlike how protesting football players have been treated in the past. A few weeks after Tommie Smith raised his fist and gave a black power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics, the L.A. Rams, who drafted Smith in 1967, gave him a tryout. Historians largely recorded it as phony. The Rams never signed Smith. Eventually, two seasons later, Smith got a legitimate shot and played one season with the Bengals.
As for Kaepernick, the workout put him in a no-win situation. If he refused to attend, his commitment to returning to the league would be questioned. If he accepted the NFL’s terms, he would be criticized for betraying his cause. The breakdown in negotiations was a byproduct of several years of distrust between the two sides. After Kaepernick’s workout, his agent, Jeff Nalley, said, “Something didn’t smell right. Again, nothing like this has ever happened. Roger Goodell said that the league does not get involved in player workouts, team decisions. So why did they do this? So I think from the beginning it seemed odd. And so that’s why we had to protect him in this whole process.” The league issued a statement saying it was “disappointed that Colin did not appear for his workout.” Last week, Goodell said the NFL has “moved on.”
Thirty-eight percent of Americans said Kaepernick’s workout was an attempt by the NFL to garner positive publicity, according to a Seton Hall University poll. Thirty-seven percent say it was done in good faith. Twenty-five percent say they did not know or had no opinion. As for whether he deserved the workout at all, 57 percent said “yes,” and 29 percent said “no.” Public opinion might be split about the league’s motives, but it is in favor of Kaepernick receiving an opportunity to return to the league.
Set aside skepticism for a moment, and it seemed possible that he would get his chance in 2019. Kaepernick resolved his legal challenge; the NFL hired Jay-Z, a purported ally and an advocate, and teams reportedly expressed enough interest in him that the NFL felt compelled to organize a workout. But the year has ended with the same sense of acrimony, confusion, and frustration. Kaepernick has spent more than 1,000 days out of the sport. Whenever an injured quarterback is replaced by a backup, it’s impossible not to imagine how Kaepernick would perform if given the opportunity.
The difference between 2019 and years past is that not only does Kaepernick remain unemployed in his chosen profession, but the energy has been drained from the protest movement he birthed. Barely recognizable. Barely spoken of. In place of protest are league-driven initiatives that feel disconnected from the true intent of Kaepernick’s message. Athletic protest is now a corporatized commodity.
Kaepernick has seemingly exhausted all of his options, with no indication of a viable path to return. His absence is the normal state of affairs—only now, it feels like forever.
In his 1972 autobiography, Jackie Robinson recalled the angry responses he received from white fans when he expressed his views. It angered him to be spoken to as though he were a child. “One day, 20 years ago, they liked the way I stole home or admired my capacity to be insulted or injured and turn and walk away,” he wrote. “For that admiration they have given me, I am supposed henceforth and forevermore to surrender my soul. I am not allowed an opinion. If I become naturally, normally indignant, they describe my mood as one of rage. … I don’t owe any living person my soul, my integrity, my freedom of thought, and speech. People who believe they have the right to restrain and repress these freedoms are mentally sick.”
Kaepernick has been harangued in the media since the beginning of his protests. He was insincere. He was ungrateful. He needed to set aside his grievances and focus on football. These sentiments are rooted in a belief that athletics have always been good for black people, not just the athletes themselves. Who would dare pass up on achieving excellence in America’s sacred sporting arenas in the name of righteousness? Whether it was Jesse Owens winning Olympic gold in Nazi Germany, or the heavyweight champion Joe Louis campaigning for Republican politicians in the 20th century, black athletes have been used as symbols to extol the virtues of U.S. democracy, even when it did not bestow its rights equally on black citizens. The achievement of black athletes was used as a symbol of racial harmony that did not exist in the country. When black athletes dissented, they were subject to intense criticism from the press, including black commentators and players. Those same black athletes who were the beacons of democracy, of fanciful white dreams, would be used as weapons to silence protest.
Black former players and coaches—from Tiki Barber to Tony Dungy to Dez Bryant—have decried Kaepernick’s mission. Black press—from Stephen A. Smith to Jason Whitlock to Marcellus Wiley—have pushed a narrative that he wasn’t benefiting black culture, that his refusal to accept the NFL’s terms was primed with cowardice, or an unwillingness to set aside one’s soul for one’s checkbook. But protest cannot be tame. It must be fiery, full of the furor necessary to change our toxic culture.
The author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The New York Times in November that rather than withstand public scrutiny and engage in a transparent dialogue about Kaepernick, the NFL has relied on a tactic of obfuscation and distraction. “It has been said that Colin Kaepernick missed an opportunity, that no matter how crooked the bargain, if he were truly serious about getting a job, he would have acceded to the NFL’s demands,” Coates writes. “But Mr. Kaepernick is not fighting for a job. He is fighting against cancellation. … It is a fight for a world where we are not shot, or shunned, because the masters of capital, or their agents, do not like our comportment, our attire or what we have to say.”
Kaepernick was banished from the game he loved, not because of presidential decrees or staredowns with football’s power brokers, but because he challenged the established order. And he might never return because as long as he remains in exile, order can be maintained. For many, his name will forever be a pejorative, and he will serve as an example of what happens when one prioritizes virtue over economic value. For others, his message about equality and opposing systemic racism endures. It’s strange to consider Kaepernick as a poisonous influence, even as the president implored NFL owners to remove protesting players and labeled them “sons of bitches,” or when the league attempted to enact a policy to enforce a no-protest zone. All these years later, even as Bob McNair thought of players as “inmates” and Stephen Ross continued to fundraise for the president, it is Kaepernick who is still considered football’s true poison, the Bad Negro of a never-ending athletic plantation. Football’s years-long gesticulation around unity doesn’t change the fact that racism has yet to be eradicated from its game. It is a key to keeping the rich on top, their pockets forever fat, and the labor demoralized under the boot of power.
In an interview captured in a 1963 documentary, the author James Baldwin said that “white people invented the nigger” as a means of injuring black people, but they unwittingly exposed something about themselves. “I’ve always known that I am not a nigger,” Baldwin says, “but, if I am not the nigger, and it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?” It is, as Baldwin describes it, an invention based on the fear of something about oneself. “You still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary,” he tells the audience. “Well, it’s unnecessary to me, but it must be necessary to you. So, I give you your problem back. You’re the nigger, baby. It isn’t me.”
The demonization of Kaepernick and the distortion of his message have contributed to his NFL exile. It is, as Patterson described, a kind of social death and, in many ways, our shared burden, just as it is Goodell’s and the 32 owners’ who have kept the league’s doors closed to him. The cancer isn’t Colin Kaepernick. It is the scourge of racism in our institutions, and it must be confronted or else the next curious black athlete of another generation will face the same battle: fatigued enough to embrace protest as their weapon of upheaval only to suffer in the same, scripted ways of their predecessors.