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Harry Edwards: Let Kaepernick get back to work

Quarterback should be a model, Edwards says, not a martyr

As the Baltimore Ravens decide whether they’ll break with the rest of the NFL and permit Colin Kaepernick to resume his career, Harry Edwards has continued to speak out on behalf of the activist-quarterback.

For Edwards, to rail against injustice is nothing new. Since the 1960s, Edwards has been active at the intersections of race, sports and politics. Through his creation of The Olympic Project for Human Rights, Edwards inspired the iconic Black Power salute displayed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Edwards, who has spent decades observing the NFL, has closely monitored Kaepernick’s quest to find another job. The former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback has been passed over repeatedly by far less accomplished players, presumably because he stirred controversy last season by first sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem in an effort to draw attention to the oppression of black people and people of color.

Edwards, as told to Jason Reid, has a message for NFL decision-makers: Let Kaepernick work.


The way the Ravens and the NFL – and it is a league issue, not just a club issue – have handled what should be a straightforward football decision about whether to sign Kaepernick is … [taking too long]. The time already expended surpasses anything that would be required to objectively evaluate Kaep’s potential to contribute footballwise, and all the more so relative to other available QB talent. So they could only be assessing nonfootball concerns: political biases, media and public relations concerns and perceived potential “locker-room impact.”

If the hang-up is political, the Ravens should just state outright their political disposition and issues toward Kaepernick. If Ray Lewis’ presentations represent the club’s efforts toward that end, then I can only conclude that the Ravens are operating out of a perspective and disposition of total confusion, since there was little clarity in and no logic to what Ray has said, though I must concede that I am not completely certain of my conclusion in this regard since I have no interpretive ability, facility or dexterity with the linguistic currency of gibberish. If the issue is media management, negative publicity and public relations concerns, they should not be focusing on Kaep. They should be focused on their media and public information department, which, I believe, is excellent.

After all, they had little problem handling the travails and team trauma potential of Lewis returning from prison after being jailed in association with a double murder. They did an exceptional job managing player returns to the locker room after DUI vehicular manslaughter and domestic violence charges and more. I’m certain that the Ravens’ media relations staff would have no problem handling the “distraction potential” of Kaepernick, who broke no league regulation, who committed no crime. He merely had the audacity, courage and commitment to take a knee in order to send the message.

To propagate the phony issue and disposition that it is Kaepernick who is the issue, to push black sycophants out to front that message and perspective – however inarticulately – is not so much feckless as it is pathetic and an insult to the intelligence of informed or simply right-thinking people. I may be proved wrong, but I think that the Ravens – and the NFL – are better than that.

The very notion that there are 32 starting QBs, 32 backup QBs, and as many as 32 backup emergency QBs who are not only better than Kaepernick, but so much better that he is not only undeserving of being on an NFL roster, but is undeserving of an opportunity to compete for such a roster spot … defies demonstrable QB facts, statistics and ratings. And that’s both careerwise and from last season.

The suggestions that Kaepernick might be a prohibitive “business risk” – as New York Giants owner John Mara has stated, because of a number of letters, emails, and call-ins warning of some negative fan reaction – and that Kaepernick might be a distractive, disruptive and/or divisive influence in the locker room are belied by indisputable facts: Kaepernick had the highest-selling jersey in the NFL (a measure of public popularity), and he won The Len Eshmont Award, the highest award for “inspiration, character and courage” awarded by the 49ers in voting by his teammates at the end of the 2016-17 regular season.

If Kaepernick is not on a roster at the beginning of the regular season, and most certainly [at some point in] training camp or by the start of the preseason, his effective banishment from the NFL – whether through explicit owner/GM collusion or reactionary NFL consensus – will be a major topic of conversation about the NFL among sports columnists, broadcasters, pundits, pontificators, opinion makers, the public and, especially, in locker rooms around the league. So long as he is not on a roster … a commentary will be amped up every time a QB is injured, or simply has a noteworthy bad game, even in the preseason.

Under the circumstances, the focus increasingly will not be on the games, not on the star athletes, not on the marquee matchups to the degree that it should be. The focus will be on the Kaepernick issue and situation. Already, lists of second- and even third-chance cases from the era/tenure of [commissioner] Roger Goodell are being contrasted and juxtaposed against Kaepernick’s “transgression.”

Not only would it be a huge mistake, and a public relations, political, and business blunder to allow Kaepernick to be outside of the NFL looking in at the start of the 2017-18 preseason, it would be exceedingly unwise to turn Kaepernick into a martyr when he could in fact be seen as a model. Kaepernick has moved on from protest to progress by way of the funding and development of personal participation in programs. Kaepernick has donated or otherwise spent nearly $2 million of his own money on youth, education and community programs. He has donated 60,000 pounds of vitally needed supplies and medicines to Somalian refugees, helping people suffering in one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises.

He has been unswerving in his commitment to make a difference both within and beyond the football arena, and he has stated outright that he has moved on from protest. So those who wish to emulate his example need no longer focus on sending a protest message. Kaepernick is the very model of focusing on programs as a means to progress. Don’t make him a martyr. But more than any of this, as Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said, “Colin Kaepernick can not only still play, he is a starter.”

I have spent the last half-century organizing, analyzing and deconstructing developments at the interface of sport, politics, race and society. I spent last season actively involved with developments at ground zero of the Colin Kaepernick saga. My essential argument here is that the often and unequivocally correct concern for the integrity of the shield could become a comedic punchline and a glaring contradiction as Kaepernick is split-screened with already publicly acknowledged transgressing personalities, ranging from Joe Mixon, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald all the way up to Jim Irsay and numerous such cases in between. This is not the conversation that the NFL needs.

Liner Notes

Harry Edwards is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books, including “The Struggle That Must Be: An Autobiography.” A longtime staff consultant with the San Francisco 49ers, Edwards developed a strong relationship with Kaepernick, who spent the last six seasons with the franchise. Although Edwards has an ongoing dialogue with Kaepernick and his management team, he is not among Kaepernick’s advisers.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.