The NAACP’s boycott of the NFL over Colin Kaepernick’s lack of a contract exemplifies in vivid focus the many ways that the American conversation about race and culture is dysfunctional. Admittedly, the stakes in this particular drama are low; whether a professional athlete is paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game or just a few million dollars is not especially rich ground for serious cultural critiques. But the omnipresence of the Kaepernick story on national sports media, and now the official response from a respected cultural institution, means that it might be time to start asking what this whole ordeal means in a tender cultural moment.
Don’t misunderstand me. The NFL deserves its fair share of animus. We know now that it almost certainly withheld important information about concussions and CTE from players for decades. The league has also taken an astonishingly capricious and hypocritical approach to players’ domestic abuse cases, and engaged in pathetic political posturing itself. If one wants to boycott the National Football League, there are good reasons to do so.
But the unemployment of Colin Kaepernick is not one of them. Nor is it an illustration of systemic injustice and institutional racism. Rather, Kaepernick’s drama has everything to do with the powerful role that media narrative plays in shaping public discourse, especially about race, and about the dispiriting lack of good faith from both whites and blacks. Contrary to what some of my white friends think, Kaepernick is not a traitor or “ungrateful.” And contrary to what some of my black friends believe, I don’t think Kaepernick is a political martyr or victim. He’s a football player, an American, and a black man, whose three identities, combustible as they might appear from reading ESPN, are completely compatible.
When Kaepernick began sitting out the national anthem during last year’s NFL season, many white fans interpreted it as a sign of disrespect for the country, for the game, and (presumably) for them. At the time that his actions began, remember, the 2016 election was still slouching toward Mar-A-Lago. Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling had both been killed by police officers, their deaths circulated on video through social media. Racial tensions were (and are) real. Thus, Kaepernick explained in a press conference after a 49ers preseason game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Whether Kaepernick was right or wrong in his historical judgment on the United States, it would be wrong to not empathize with his perspective. Christians who believe in sinful human natures are obliged to affirm that such sinfulness can and does seep into the political and cultural superstructures that we create. To deny this would be to embrace a civic gnosticism that denies the role of individual human wills in society. White football fans who angrily dismissed Kaepernick as anti-American fail to respond to his claim. Additionally, there’s an unmissable irony in the assertions of some whites that people like Kaepernick are wrong to think about history and cultural context when they themselves are wealthy athletes. Aren’t these the same people who insist that confederate monuments ought to be protected in the name of “heritage”? If “it’s history” is why we ought not rename Jefferson Davis Highway, why should history suddenly not matter for a black quarterback who wants to talk about justice and racial equality?
This is a valuable example of the failures of the modern American conservative movement on race. It’s an unthinking tribalism that creates hypocrites out of supposedly small-government conservatives who suddenly think any questioning of law enforcement is by definition not “patriotism.” Count me out.
So does that make Kaepernick a true victim of a racist sports league? Hardly. Again, this whole episode is nothing if not a dramatic presentation of the dysfunctional public conversation about race. On the one hand are white football fans preoccupied with vacuous (and vaguely anti-free speech) notions of patriotism. But on the other hand, we see a political and media class that drives home, day after day, week after week, a conspiracy theory about a black quarterback in a black-dominated sports league.
Why is Colin Kaepernick unemployed? Lets answer that question with another question: Why do most NFL players go from active roster to free agent? There are several causes, but two are primary. The first is that they do not perform well enough to make a team’s final 53-man roster. This happens to hundreds of players in the NFL every year, many of whom were highly coveted as draft picks but for various reasons could not rise to the level that professional football demanded. The second reason is that a player can be released because he no longer wants to play under his current contract or for his current team. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates the existence of “opt-outs” in certain contracts, where a player can choose not to return for the final year of a contract. Sometimes players do this because they are tired of playing for the team. More often they choose to do so because they believe another team would be willing to pay them more money.
Why recite these? Well, it turns out that Kaepernick actually made a fair case for meeting both of these benchmarks. Since going to a Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s performance with the 49ers slowly but surely declined. After Harbaugh left, the bottom fell out of Kaepernick’s play, with many analysts wondering if it had been the coach’s offensive system that allowed Kaepernick to flourish. In 2015, well before Kaepernick’s anthem protests, he lost his starting job with the 49ers and was benched. He did, however, get a second chance in 2016, being named the starter to replace a woeful Blaine Gabbert.
Which brings me to the second point. At the end of the 2016 season Kaepernick “opted-out” of his contract with the 49ers in order to hit the free agent market. Why? Presumably, he wanted to play for a team that would pay him more money than the 49ers. This is completely understandable for a professional athlete. It does mean however that Kaepernick wasn’t “cut” or disciplined for his anthem protests. Kaepernick is unemployed chiefly and most immediately because he didn’t want to play on the 49ers anymore. In other words, Kaepernick could be and most likely would be an NFL roster right now had he wanted to finish his contract with his previous team. If the NFL is determined not to allow a woke Kaepernick to play, why wasn’t he cut during the season, or prevented from playing, or cut after the season?
Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped media outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated from making Kaepernick’s unemployment the dominant story in all of pro sports for a year. Never mind that players like Marshawn Lynch also do not stand for the anthem, but are currently on active rosters. Never mind that league heroes like Adrian Peterson (also on an active roster) have gone so far as to compare life in pro football to chattel slavery. Those obnoxious facts are worthless in promoting a juicy and politically powerful narrative, a narrative of corporate oppression and athletic McCarthyism. Meanwhile, sports media sits back and enjoys web traffic and headline-omnipresence as its narrative becomes stronger and stronger and polarizes more and more people.
There’s a final point that needs to be addressed. Even with all these mitigating factors, isn’t it possible that Kaepernick is a valuable symbolic figure for the struggles of African-Americans? But here’s where we should be cautious. To dismiss facts and good faith because the alternative narrative serves a valuable social purpose is precisely the kind of “post-truth” culture that generated a Trump White House. The anger that black NFL fans feel toward the NFL is rooted in misinformation and misrepresentation, both of which have been proffered by a sports media culture desperate to politicize its internal drama for maximum clickage. On the other hand, the resentment that white football fans feel toward Kaepernick and others like him is likewise often fueled by political myths and culturally convenient jargon. The result is that both of these factions scream past one another, each taking the other’s hostility as evidence they are acting in racist or anti-American bad faith. A vicious, almost impenetrable cycle of distrust, cynicism, and anger.
This is, sadly, the cultural moment we find ourselves in. It can, and must, be transcended. Our national racial wounds are deep and are in the shape of the slaveholder’s whip. Reckoning with a sinful past is never easy, either individually or corporately, but it must be done for God’s sake. And it cannot be done while seeds of hostility are sown by peddlers of narrative instead of truth.