For some, a man sacrificing his life’s work wasn’t enough.
That’s a fair conclusion to draw in the days since Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid reached a confidential settlement with the NFL. Their collusion grievance ended, shutting the door on the league’s potential exposure for what looked like a concerted effort to keep Kaepernick out of the NFL after his protests during the national anthem in the 2016 season.
Even those minimally invested in Kap’s cause, or simply interested in the continuing saga, want to know more, and the settlement scuttled that possibility. But let’s be clear: Kaepernick never owed a thing to the world, and that didn’t change when he filed suit against the league. He owes no explanation because he never should have been put in this position, a point that’s bigger than the ultimate resolution.
This has gone on so long, with buzzwords and talking points recited, that we’ve forgotten how absurd it is that we’re still talking about the way we discuss it. A decision on what to do during a song, no matter the song, in an ostensibly free country made Kap the most polarizing figure in sports since Muhammad Ali told Uncle Sam he wouldn’t risk his life fighting the Viet Cong. Whether one agreed with Ali or not, the argument that he shirked his duty as an American citizen had merit on its face. Kaepernick, at worst, declined to comply with custom. Both suffered from effective banishment. Those who find it silly that Kaepernick has been treated as his generation’s Ali should take that up with those who oppose him, not those standing behind him.
But here we are. Many do want Kaepernick to be Ali, leader of a generation bent on resistance. Given his and Reid’s belief that he should have been the face of the NFL’s Players Coalition, a group working with the league to support causes particular to black people in America, it’s fair to say he wants to lead and it’s debatable whether he knows how to do so. Not only is that OK, it should be expected. The prerequisite for courteous indifference to the national anthem isn’t the ability to helm a revolution. Rosa Parks didn’t have to be Martin Luther King, too, but that’s what is expected of Kaepernick.
Keep that in mind while judging this settlement we know so little about. A major difference between Kaepernick and Ali is the latter either knew at every turn what he was getting into or was surrounded and supported — and, in some ways, manipulated — by those who did. Kaepernick did not. He admirably got up to speed during the 2016 season, speaking resolutely with an uncommon clarity and rare insistence on publicly and explicitly challenging the white supremacy that has infected America since its conception. He was fed up, and anyone who didn’t understand why, after hearing him speak, was guilty of willful ignorance.
But a man who saw all this coming wouldn’t stop speaking publicly for two years while his profile was at its peak. Kap is Neo in this matrix, but he didn’t answer a call. In a watershed year in American history, a personal choice suddenly belonged to the world, molded to fit agenda both noble and sinister.
So it’s fitting that the significance of this settlement, because of its secrecy, can be manipulated the same way. Plausible theories exist on why a settlement means he beat the NFL, why it means the NFL threw him a bone to make it all go away or even (the least likely scenario) why this opens the door for Kap’s return to the NFL.
The reactions to the settlement ranged from disappointment to delight, with both emotions expressed on both sides of the fight. A measure of disappointment from his supporters made sense, as a chance to lay bare how far an institution will go to silence a truly anti-racist message was tantalizing. Especially after two seasons where football people and the media members who took their dictation tried to gaslight us into thinking Kaepernick simply wasn’t good enough to play in the Nathan Peterman era of the NFL. The most cynical on both sides of the debate see a settlement as proof the grievance was just about money, as if any lawsuit involving lost wages isn’t about money, or like heavy-hitting Hollywood lawyer Mark Geragos took this case only hoping for a cookout invitation when it was done.
At some point, everyone must consider what more there is to ask of Kaepernick. His detractors, should they be at all reasonable, have to think that two years out of the league — which is how long Michael Vick was out of the NFL, including that stint in Leavenworth — makes whatever point they have clear, rather than impugning his intentions to avoid the truth. And those who wanted Kap to take down the NFL might give thought to how exhausting this all has been, and how complicated any resolution had to be for the person who has had the most to lose from the beginning.
His highly specialized career still appears to be over. He tried to fund grand initiatives like his Know Your Rights Camps himself but couldn’t afford to continue. His ability to earn is now tied to celebrity, which clouds his message to many, even at a time when social media has turned us all into brands of varying scope. He has endured threats on his life and those of his family. He has paid costs that settlements, book advances and endorsement deals can ease but cannot correct. Fighting white supremacy is a big enough job that fighting the NFL may no longer be worth the energy, no matter how much he netted in the settlement.
Of course, anyone who found Kap’s fight against the NFL to be so intrinsically valuable that it should continue to the end, no matter what, is welcome to pitch in. Kaepernick’s greatest value has been as an inspiration. No one truly moved by his cause should give up because of a strategic legal decision. Journalists who wish the grievance had gone far enough for discovery to be made public should consider that exposing truth is a job of the fourth estate, not the duty of the man who may have been mistreated. To demand more of the man who’s done more than most of those for and against him is simply unfair.
Given how things have gone since, it’s fair to wonder how things would have gone had he stayed on the bench during the anthem and made no comments about why, as trying to make his point while appeasing the public and kneeling deferentially — never forget the decision to kneel was done to show respect for veterans — ultimately got him in more trouble than guys like Michael Bennett and Marshawn Lynch, who treated the anthem no differently from “Crazy Train” or any other song that’s played at every stadium. They did not stand, but they did so in the background (and the famously recalcitrant Lynch refused to discuss why).
Kap, the face of his cause, allowed Bennett to be unwavering in his opposition to police brutality without losing his job. It made it possible for Kenny Stills to continue to kneel during the anthem and reach more people with his words and deeds than he could otherwise. It ultimately forced the NFL, which prefers the kind of good works that won’t offend anyone, to cooperate with its players on social initiatives in ways it never would otherwise. Don’t forget, Colin Kaepernick can say he’s the only man in the NFL to bring Jerry Jones to his knee.
The man who’s done that is allowed to stop fighting whenever he wants, and for whatever reason. The choice to do more, for better or worse, rests in our hands, as it always has.
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