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Column: If the NFL is serious about being antiracist, a team must sign Colin Kaepernick

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem before a game in 2016.
If the NFL truly wants to do the right thing and make a commitment to racial equality, it has to find a way to get Colin Kaepernick onto a team roster.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Obscene flags are folding up. Ugly statues are coming down. Ignorant coaches are being scrutinized.

As two weeks of unrest slowly becomes action, the blocks of racism that have long hulked in ugly corners of the sports world are slowly being chipped away and carried off.

It can’t stop here. This can only be the beginning. There are many monuments left to be toppled. The sports world can do more. The sports world can do better.

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, released a video in which he said, “We, the National Football League, condemn racism.”

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Then why does the league still allow one of its teams to use a hatefully racist nickname? How can any reasonable mind think the Washington “Redskins” was ever acceptable? Tear down that name, finally, now.

Major League Baseball issued a statement that read, in part, “Our game has zero tolerance for racism and racial injustice.”

Then why does one of their teams still encourage folks in Atlanta to perform the racist tomahawk chop? It is a cheer so offensive that last season, a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher of Cherokee descent named Ryan Helsley complained about it. In response, the Braves “reduced” it but didn’t ban it. Meanwhile the NFL still allows it to be encouraged in Kansas City. Both leagues need to chop the chop.

During a protest outside SoFi Stadium, Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens demands NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologize to Colin Kaepernick.

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Throughout the sports world, from a lack of Black people in leadership positions to the tolerance of homophobic chants at soccer games, there are hideous symbols that still require dismantling.

Amid all this, there is one heartening symbol that needs to be made whole.

Somebody needs to sign Colin Kaepernick.

If the NFL really wants to make a statement about its commitment to the cause, that would be it. If this country’s most influential league really wants to show it is connecting with this country’s vital and sweeping antiracist movement, this is the play they must call.

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If they want to do the right thing, this is the thing they must do.

Kaepernick, of course, is the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality against Black people and has paid for it with his career. He foreshadowed the current national awakening, inspired the current social movement, and was rewarded by being blackballed.

He once led the 49ers to the Super Bowl and consecutive NFC championship games, yet in the three years since his kneeling season he has yet to find work. He hasn’t even been able to get a tryout with an individual team. During that time more than 100 quarterbacks have been signed, and more than 80 quarterbacks have started, yet Kaepernick has remained radioactive and untouched.

San Francisco 49ers teammates Eric Reid, left, and Colin Kaepernick protest racial injustice by taking a knee.
San Francisco 49ers teammates Eric Reid, left, and Colin Kaepernick protest racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem before a game in September 2016.
(Mike McCarn / Associated Press)
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With an 88.9 career passing rating, he would currently rank 17th among active quarterbacks. He was a declining player in his last few seasons, and at one point was even benched for Blaine Gabbert, but when he became a free agent he was still good enough to have a chance to be a starting quarterback somewhere. Even after three years of inactivity, the 32-year-old is surely skilled enough to be a backup anywhere.

Yet in Goodell’s video, in which he admits, “we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier,” he amazingly fails to apologize to Kaepernick or even mention his name.

It’s time for the NFL to stop being wrong and do right by the protesting quarterback who was right all along. It wasn’t enough to pay him and then-teammate Eric Reid several million dollars to settle their collusion agreement last year. They owe Kaepernick much more than money — they owe him his livelihood.

“The NFL could start by signing Kap back,” Seattle running back Carlos Hyde said to reporters this week. “If they sign Kap back, that’ll show that they’re really trying to move in a different direction. Kap was making a statement four years ago about what’s going on in today’s world, and the NFL didn’t bother to listen to him then. I think they should start by doing that.”

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That sentiment, which has quietly been brewing for three years, is now publicly sweeping the landscape.

On Thursday afternoon in Inglewood, Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens organized a peaceful protest that included a call for Kaepernick’s signing. Earlier in the day, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he regretted not signing Kaepernick after the quarterback visited the team a couple of years ago.

Earlier in the week, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan weighed in, telling reporters, “His protest is being heard at this point, but it’s taken too long. I think he should have every opportunity to have a job and to have a spot at this point.”

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The exiled quarterback was even mentioned in a eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral Tuesday, when the Rev. Al Sharpton said, “Don’t apologize. Give Colin Kaepernick a job back. We don’t want an apology. We want him repaired.”

Some feel that by simply signing Kaepernick and expecting everything to be fine, the NFL is missing the point of his protests. This is true. This wouldn’t acquit them, far from it. The league still needs to work harder at giving players a voice while taking more concrete action to fight police brutality.

Colin Kaepernick participates in a workout for NFL football scouts in November.
(Todd Kirkland / Associated Press)

One of those types of steps was taken recently by the University of Minnesota, which announced it would no longer use Minneapolis Police Department officers to assist at major events, including football games.

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There is also a belief that Kaepernick might be a better symbol of the battle against social injustice if he doesn’t play again. This is also true. What if he comes back and struggles? What if he gets cut? Given his place at the lead of this fight, he might wield more influence by never playing again.

None of that matters when one considers, by all accounts, Kaepernick wants to play again, and should be given that chance. He was invited to a league tryout last fall that was botched in a legal dispute over the wording in a waiver. Then, after the Super Bowl, he told USA Today’s Jarrett Bell, “My desire to play football is still there. I still train five days a week. I’m ready to go.”

The question now becomes, go where?

He will be costly and require some salary-cap gymnastics. He won’t be your basic million-dollar backup. He’ll probably want closer to starter money because of his three lost years. But these NFL teams are richer than small countries. If they want somebody bad enough, they can figure it out.

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Rams receiver Robert Woods and Chargers running back Justin Jackson are among NFL players who have spoken out on racial injustice after the death of George Floyd.

Here’s one idea. How about an inclusive, embracing franchise that leads the league in employing social pioneers? A place big enough where any distractions would eventually be drowned out, but small enough where the passionate fans would love him like family.

Why not the Rams?

While their starter is the secure — for now — Jared Goff, their backup is John Wolford, an undrafted free agent from Wake Forest who spent last season on their practice squad and has yet to throw a regular-season NFL pass. The Rams love Wolford, but why not give Kaepernick a chance to compete with him?

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Why not use this moment to build on their history? This is the organization of Kenny Washington, who became the first Black player to sign an NFL contract in 1946. This is the team of Michael Sam, who in 2014 became the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL.

“He hasn’t played in a long time,” Rams coach Sean McVay said last week to reporters about Kaepernick. “We feel really good about our quarterback situation.”

Here’s hoping one of the 32 teams in the league can make it happen.

Colin Kaepernick was vilified and shunned for delivering a message that could have saved lives, if only America had listened. America is listening now. The least somebody can do is give him his job back.

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