We didn’t really need the workout, did we?
We didn’t need to see the pictures of how Colin Kaepernick looked, the tweets quoting unnamed NFL scouts, or the livestream showcasing his deep throws. We didn’t need any of this because Kaepernick’s three-year absence from the NFL was never about his ability to play football. Sure, a handful of trolling contrarians and racists quoted some of his more unfavorable stats but as someone who was present for Kaepernick’s last game — one in which he led a fourth-quarter comeback capped by the quarterback running in the game-winning two-point conversion against the Rams — I know it was never about his ability to play.
It was about fear.
So when Kaepernick ended the day by telling NFL scouts “when you go back, tell your owners to stop being scared,” he was indirectly answering the question anyone who watched Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, Bryce Petty and a host of other less-than-stellar quarterbacks signed since that game at the Coliseum wondered: Is this the best guy available?
The NFL does a lot of things extremely well, but the one thing it doesn’t do well is handle controversy. From players arrested for domestic violence to the CTE problem to its handling of the fight that broke out at the end of the Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers game Thursday, the league’s inability to navigate choppy waters is perhaps the biggest mystery in American sports. Handcuffed by a fear of bad press, the league continues to make exacerbating decisions that prolong stories far beyond what should be their expiration date. Had the NFL properly organized a Kaepernick workout two years ago, this saga would be over. Had the NFL properly defended its players against the verbal attacks of a president who is facing impeachment, this would not be a topic today. Had the NFL not acted in fear when Kaepernick began protesting police corruption and racial injustice, the league would not be viewed as corrupt today … or at least not corrupt on this topic.
Originally I was going to write about how Kaepernick looked on the field because I temporarily tricked myself into believing this was a football topic. But this story is no more about football than Craig Hodges’ absence from the NBA was about basketball. Hodges had won the three-point shooting contest during All-Star weekend for a third consecutive year and was a member of the Chicago Bulls’ championship team in 1992. He shot 37.5% from deep that year and was a career 40% shooter from three-point range. He was cut by the Bulls after that season and not invited to any camp after he showed up to the White House wearing a dashiki and handed President Bush a letter urging him to address the injustices afflicting the black community.
It’s the soundtrack of the Curt Flood story. It’s the song of Muhammad Ali as well as John Carlos and Tommie Smith or any other athlete who has the audacity to use their platform to remind America of its promise.
That’s not to say any of these men are above reproach. Kaepernick’s refusal to vote, particularly when several ballot measures regarding criminal justice reform were on the ballot in California, is not a good look.
Yet significant social change isn’t led by perfection but by willingness. Over the last three years, Kaepernick has proven to be just that — willing. What the NFL needs to do is move past what it thinks it might lose because of his inclusion and instead recognize all that it can gain by being fair. Michael Goodell, brother of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, said his older sibling used to “beat the crap out of” those who bullied him for being gay.
“Roger was not Atticus Finch,” he told Time Magazine. Finch is the character from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the book Finch was willing to fight for social justice but not as apt to get his hands dirty in doing so. For three years, Roger Goodell has been Atticus Finch … let’s see if it changes after Kaepernick’s workout.
Steelers backup quarterback Mason Rudolph had four passes intercepted Thursday. That’s as many as Kaepernick had picked off during his last season in the league. With last season’s MVP, Patrick Mahomes, being a mobile quarterback with a big arm and this year’s MVP race being between two similarly talented quarterbacks, chances are your favorite team could benefit from having a guy whose Mahomes-Lamar Jackson-Deshaun Watson style of play led his team to a Super Bowl appearance.
If this was about football, he would not have been on the free-agent market this long.
His blackballing has nothing to do with the game. It has nothing to do with patriotism anymore than eating a salad swimming in blue cheese dressing has to do with being healthy. It’s all about fear, which is why Kaepernick’s departing words to NFL scouts were so ironic.
Here we have a game built on the backs of gladiators haunted by a fear of having its biggest gladiator on the field.