Kaepernick rarely speaks but still dominates every NFL conversation
From Super Bowl halftime to Nike’s ad campaign to Madden, the debate over the quarterback’s protest isn’t going away
New England Patriots legend Tom Brady will be playing in his record ninth Super Bowl on Sunday, while the Los Angeles Rams’ 24-year-old signal-caller, Jared Goff, will be playing in his first. But no quarterback looms over the NFL like one who has not set foot on an NFL field since the 2016 season: former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick.
In the two years since Kaepernick allegedly was banished from the NFL after his decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, he remains a polarizing figure. Kaepernick’s activism exposed a massive divide between black and white football fans while raising uncomfortable questions about the racial dynamics underlying the nation’s most lucrative sports league, including the attitude of white team owners toward black players.
A new SurveyMonkey poll commissioned by The Undefeated found that the racial split remains firm even as the number of protests during the anthem has dwindled. Eighty percent of African-American NFL fans have a favorable view of Kaepernick, a view shared by just 36 percent of white fans.
Black and white fans are in closer agreement on the reason Kaepernick is not on an NFL roster. The online poll found that sizable majorities of both blacks (77 percent) and whites (59 percent) believe the former 49ers star is being penalized for his political views.
Kaepernick has filed a grievance against the NFL, alleging that owners conspired to keep him out of the league because of his protests against social injustice. Last year, an arbitrator rejected the NFL’s request to dismiss the action, which is still pending.
Since leaving the 49ers, Kaepernick has been living in New York City, where friends say he is training almost daily to remain football-fit. He also is pursuing his work as an activist, which has transformed him into a cultural force whose example and sacrifice are celebrated by hip-hop artists, human rights groups and academic institutions alike.
Remarkably, Kaepernick has managed to transcend his former role as an athlete while rarely saying a word in public.
He does no interviews and has made just a handful of speeches over the past two years. He has millions of social media followers, but his activity on those platforms is limited mainly to reposting the thoughts of his supporters. His closest friends rarely give interviews, and even when they do, they won’t discuss Kaepernick’s plans.
For example, Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick’s closest friends, said he talks to Kaepernick regularly. But when asked whether Kaepernick wants to play again, he was mum. “I am not answering that question,” Reid said.
It is left to others to debate the number of lesser quarterbacks who have been given jobs in the NFL since his departure, or to speculate about whether at age 31, and having earned more than $40 million from the game, Kaepernick will play professional football again.
In a rare public address, Kaepernick appeared onstage at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre in October to receive the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, which honors people who have made significant contributions to African and African-American history and culture. He was being recognized along with seven other black luminaries, including a pathbreaking physicist, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the artist who painted the official portrait of former President Barack Obama, and comedian Dave Chappelle.
Looking trim in a black Nehru jacket, Kaepernick watched with a slight smile as Harvard professor Cornel West stirred the capacity crowd with a fiery introduction that described Kaepernick as a great athlete, cultural influencer and human rights icon.
“When you look at my brother Colin, the first thing you ought to see is the love in him,” West said as the crowd burst into applause. “Because in order to sacrifice what he’s had to sacrifice, he had to have John Coltrane-like love supreme all shot through him.”
Kaepernick ditched his prepared text to tell a short story that explained why he has chosen the path of protest. Not long after he first knelt, he visited an Oakland, California, high school football team that had taken a knee in his support.
Kaepernick said he was in the locker room with the players as they got hyped for a game when one of the students said, “We don’t get to eat at home, so we are going to eat on this field,” he recounted.
He said the comment left a deep impression. “I think that’s the reality of what I fought for, what so many of us have fought for,” he said. “People live with this every single day. And we expect them to thrive in situations where they are just trying to survive. And I feel like it’s not only my responsibility but all our responsibilities as people who are in positions of privilege, in positions of power, to continue to fight for them and uplift them, empower them. Because if we don’t, we become complicit in the problem.”
In keeping with the approach the former quarterback has maintained since he has emerged as an activist, his brief remarks were excluded at his request from a video released by the university, although a transcript was made available.
Despite his studied silence, Kaepernick’s presence in popular culture has only grown. Rappers regularly shout him out. He landed a reported $1 million book deal, and award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay is developing a comedy series based on his life growing up with his adoptive family in Turlock, California. His work as the face of Nike’s rebooted “Just Do It” campaign, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2018, has yielded a bonanza for the sports apparel giant.
As the NFL struggles to negotiate the sharp divides in public opinion over players’ protests and whether Kaepernick has been blackballed, the run-up to the league’s biggest event this weekend has been shadowed by debates over who should and shouldn’t perform at its halftime show or sing the national anthem. Always, the question is framed in terms both stark and unforgiving:
Are you with Kap or against him?
They’re With Kap
“I said no to the Super Bowl/ You need me, I don’t need you/ Every night we in the end zone/ Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.” – Jay-Z
Jay-Z and Beyoncé did not ignore Kaepernick’s standoff with the NFL in their long-awaited album EVERYTHING IS LOVE, which was released last summer. In the video for “Apes—,” the Grammy-nominated lead single from the project, a group of young black men can be seen taking a knee, with the leader wearing a hoodie. The gesture paid homage to Kaepernick, whom Jay-Z has called an “iconic figure” who “put his name next to Muhammad Ali,” and it was also a somber salute to Trayvon Martin.
That was far from the only time hip-hop artists have lifted Kaepernick’s cause. Last August, when the Madden 19 video game was released, EA Sports edited “Big Bank,” a hit song on the soundtrack, to remove a reference to Kaepernick. Rapper Big Sean, one of the artists on the song, took to Twitter to denounce the move, calling it “disappointing and appalling.” EA Sports apologized and vowed to reinstate the lyric in an updated version of the game.
Other influential hip-hop artists have jumped in. Meek Mill has donated to Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights youth camps, and he name-checked the exiled quarterback last year on the personal ode “Trauma.”
They told Kap to stand up if you wanna play for a team/ And all his teammates ain’t saying a thing (Stay woke)/ If you don’t stand for nothing, you gon’ fall for something/ And in the ’60s if you kneeled, you’d probably be killed/ But they don’t kill you now, they just take you out of your deal.
Meanwhile, A-list performers such as Rihanna and Cardi B made it known that they wouldn’t perform in the Super Bowl halftime show as long as Kaepernick remained unsigned. Likewise, comedian Amy Schumer refused to do any Super Bowl-related commercials to show solidarity with Kaepernick.
Mark Geragos, Kaepernick’s lawyer, called the widening embrace of his client a repudiation of the NFL. “They used Kap as a cutout for the culture war, and it is obvious which side the NFL collectively decided to take,” Geragos said. “I think you will see history is not going to look kindly on the NFL.”
Soul superstar Gladys Knight, who will sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, felt the need to issue a statement to Variety explaining why she chose to sing before the game, which is being played in her hometown of Atlanta.
“I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting two things, and they are police violence and injustice,” Knight wrote. “It is unfortunate that our national anthem has been dragged into this debate when the distinctive senses of the national anthem and fighting for justice should each stand alone.”
Artists who have chosen to perform at the game have been pilloried by Kaepernick supporters on social media. Travis Scott’s announcement that he would be performing alongside Big Boi and Maroon 5 at the halftime show sparked a barrage of responses, especially when Scott said he had spoken to Kaepernick about doing the show and that the two had come away with a “mutual respect and understanding.”
Kaepernick’s partner, Nessa Diab, a New York radio personality who goes by her first name, took to Twitter to slam Scott.
— NESSA (@nessnitty) January 16, 2019
Kaepernick retweeted Nessa’s post, along with several others that were harshly critical of the rapper, including one in which Nessa wrote: “If you’re with them, then you are definitely not with us.”
Can he still play?
The NFL has said little as these debates have swirled around Kaepernick, and it has denied the central allegation in his pending grievance: that it conspired to ruin his career because of his politics. Similarly, many NFL coaches and players are tight-lipped about Kaepernick’s plight, although some acknowledge in private that he’s still good enough to play. Ask them why he’s not in the NFL, however, and they go silent.
There was general agreement before Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his contract with the 49ers that his play had slipped substantially from his early years, when his dynamic combination of passing and running led the 49ers to the verge of a Super Bowl championship. Still, he remained more effective than many quarterbacks who are still on NFL payrolls. For example, he has the fourth-best touchdown-to-interception ratio of all time, a mark that is better than some all-time greats, including Steve Young and Peyton Manning (albeit in significantly fewer games).
“It’s really unbelievable that he’s not on a team given how teams need quarterback help,” said Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, a close friend and staunch supporter. “Any time a quarterback gets hurt or an opportunity opens up, Kap’s name gets brought up in the locker room. The question is asked why we’re not picking him up or why another team isn’t picking him up. It’s something that all players are very conscious of.”
In an anonymous survey of 85 defensive players conducted by The Athletic, 81 said Kaepernick deserves to be on an NFL roster. Two players disagreed, and two declined comment.
Some NFL players who share Kaepernick’s social justice concerns nonetheless have broken ranks with the former 49er because they think his supporters have put his personal plight above the broader issues that animated player protests in the first place.
“He knew there could be consequences,” Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman told The Undefeated last year. Norman is one of the leading figures in the Players Coalition, which after the protests won an $89 million commitment from the NFL to support community initiatives. “It’s not right what’s happening, but this is bigger than one person. We’re trying to help communities across this country.”
Through it all, Kaepernick has mostly maintained a strategic silence. One reason is his pending grievance. But Kaepernick’s camp is also keenly aware of the enduring power of symbols and images, which they believe can be more powerful than words.
He frequently wears his hair in a large Afro, which his friend and adviser Ameer Loggins, a University of California, Berkeley academic, has described as a “crown of black consciousness.” When he did a photo shoot for GQ after being named the magazine’s Citizen of the Year, he posed variously in a dashiki, a black turtleneck and a black leather jacket, all evocative of 1960s revolutionaries such as the Black Panthers.
His supporters have compared his kneeling to the protest of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised black-gloved fists in Black Power salutes from the medal stand during the 1968 Olympics. Loggins has also compared Kaepernick’s kneeling to a less remembered event, the 1917 Negro Silent Protest Parade. That was a demonstration in which 10,000 people silently walked down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to protest three days of vicious attacks in East St. Louis, Illinois, where white mobs killed more than 100 black people and caused more than 6,000 others to flee.
“Kaepernick — like the participants in the Negro Silent Protest Parade — represents a complex collision of being tactically silent as a direct-action method of protest, while serving as a voice for those muted by untimely deaths,” Loggins wrote in Black Perspectives, a blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.
Kaepernick is definitely conscious of the value of his image. Last year, his company Ink Flash filed for a trademark of the image of his face and hair. The application reserves the right to use the image on items from jewelry and lampshades to hair spray and shampoo. He also could use it to brand television and film productions, as well as self-empowerment seminars and camps.
And, most prominently, Nike used his image to help sell athletic gear in an ad campaign with a slogan that played directly off his protest: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Featuring Kaepernick was a gamble for Nike, and its stock briefly dipped as President Donald Trump criticized the company for sending a “terrible message” and other detractors took to social media to encourage a boycott of the firm. The controversy even spread to gymnastics, where Mary Bono, the interim president of USA Gymnastics, resigned after only four days on the job after being criticized for posting a photo of herself blacking out the Nike logo on a golf shoe.
But Kaepernick proved to be a popular pitchman, something that seemed to have been helped, not hurt, by his standoff with the NFL. Last fall, LeBron James arrived at a Los Angeles Lakers preseason game wearing a black long-sleeved shirt with “KAEPERNICK” sprawled across the back. The shirt, known as the “Kaepernick Icon Tee,” went on sale in late October for a retail price of $50 and sold out within a few hours. In late November, Nike and Kaepernick announced a restock of the shirt, which promptly sold out a second time.
All of that has helped nourish Nike’s bottom line. The company finished 2018 with its share price up more than 18 percent, making it the fourth-best performer of the 30 stocks used to determine the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Kaepernick has quietly worked to combine the iconography with substantive work. Starting in 2016 in Oakland, California, he has held Know Your Rights youth camps in cities around the country to teach attendees about their legal rights during interactions with law enforcement and to provide education on holistic healing, financial literacy and organic nutrition, among other things.
“There’s a lot of work that Colin does. It’s not just Know Your Rights. He does also raise money for organizations,” said Carmen Perez, executive director of The Gathering For Justice, a New York-based criminal justice reform group founded by Harry Belafonte.
Early last year, Kaepernick and a host of his celebrity friends donated more than $200,000 to various social justice-based organizations over 10 days, besides the $900,000 Kaepernick has donated after a pledge a year earlier.
Perez said Kaepernick sometimes reaches out to her organization for connections and information. Every so often, she said, she’ll receive a message from the quarterback-in-exile.
“A lot of times I will get an email or I’ll get a text,” she said. “ ‘Hey, do you know anybody in these areas? Could you connect us?’”
Does he want to play?
Kaepernick’s protest and the work that has followed have earned him wide recognition far from the football field. Beyond being honored at Harvard and by GQ magazine, he has won awards from Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Sports Illustrated.
With his work as a human rights activist consuming more of his life, some ask whether Kaepernick even wants to return to the NFL.
Geragos, his lawyer, said the former quarterback is in “phenomenal shape” and working out and throwing regularly in hopes of returning to football.
Dolphins receiver Stills said he speaks with Kaepernick every couple of weeks. “When I talk to him, he’s usually coming from training or going to training,” he said. “We’ve talked about getting together to throw. In my mind, he’s ready to come in and play as an NFL quarterback.”
But if Kaepernick does want to play again, it certainly will be on his own terms. Earlier this month, he retweeted a biting critique of a post from the FBI, which sent out a tweet honoring Martin Luther King Jr., whom the agency had harassed for years before he was murdered. “The FBI was found guilty in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is a perfect example of how the oppressor attempts to rewrite history,” read the post from @BlakeDontCrack, which Kaepernick circulated.
Later, Kaepernick retweeted a post paraphrasing a quote from a 1966 article by the famed writer James Baldwin. It read: “The police are simply the hired enemies of Black people.”
Those kinds of posts might drive NFL owners crazy, not to mention turn off large segments of their fan base. But they are seen as courageous by Kaepernick’s admirers.
When he was honored at Harvard, the audience included Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer, a daughter of Muhammad Ali, and her son, Jacob, who attends Harvard.
“I pointed them out and said there is this legacy of Muhammad Ali that brother Colin is following going back to Ali’s courageous stand against the war and being willing to take the consequences monetarily, financially, psychically, spiritually and socially,” West, the professor who introduced Kaepernick at the ceremony, said in an interview. “The comparison for me is a real one because I do think that brother Colin really wants to do the right thing and is willing to pay the consequences. You don’t see that too often these days. That’s authentic. That’s the real thing.”
Contributing to this report were Kelley L. Carter, Aaron Dodson, Martenzie Johnson, Maya A. Jones, Jason Reid and Justin Tinsley of The Undefeated and ESPN reporters David Newton and Cameron Wolfe.