Has Colin Kaepernick been blackballed for taking an unpopular stand?
Or is he simply not the right fit for one of the NFL’s 32 teams at the salary he wants?
Everyone has an opinion — including commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I haven’t heard that from our clubs in any way that that’s an issue,” Goodell said, when asked if teams have refused to sign the 49ers quarterback over his divisive national anthem protest. “My experience in 35 years is that our clubs make independent evaluations of players. They work hard to try to improve their teams.
“But if they think a player can help improve their team, they’re going to do that.”
Such as Seahawks corner Richard Sherman, who, appearing on ESPN last week, said that Kaepernick has been frozen out of of the league because of his social activism.
“I’m sure he is,” Sherman said. “It’s difficult to see because he’s played at such a high level, and you see guys, quarterbacks, who have never played at a high level being signed by teams. So it’s difficult to understand. Obviously he’s going to be in a backup role at this point. But you see quarterbacks, there was a year Matt Schaub had a pretty rough year and got signed the next year. So it has nothing to do with football. You can see that. They signed guys who have had off years before.”
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Because if teams were colluding to exclude players who demonstrated during the national anthem to protest police brutality directed at minorities, then DeSean Jackson wouldn’t have gotten $20 million guaranteed from the Buccaneers. Then the Raiders wouldn’t have signed Jelani Jenkins. And then Malcolm Smith would be looking for work, not enjoying the $7 million signing bonus paid out by the 49ers.
And there’s at least one owner who is not only OK with players taking a knee during the anthem, but encouraged his own to do so: Stephen Ross.
Four Dolphins famously kneeled before Miami’s season opener. Two of them, Kenny Stills and Michael Thomas, continued their protest the entire season.
Stills and Thomas did so knowing it could hurt their bottom line. Both were free agents after the 2016 season and vulnerable to retribution. And both kneeled anyway.
That decision didn’t dissuade the Dolphins from bringing both back in 2017 — at considerable pay increases. They will earn a combined $11 million this year alone, unless Thomas, a tendered restricted free agent, signs a more lucrative contract with another team.
There are important differences between their case and the Kaepernick saga, of course.
Perhaps most importantly, the Dolphins see Stills and Thomas as valuable, productive players. Kaepernick, who was benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert last season, is no longer an elite (or perhaps even good) quarterback.
There are only a handful of teams that need a starting quarterback, and they simply might not see him as the right fit at this time. And as Browns tackle Joe Thomas wrote on Twitter, “NFL teams accept ZERO distractions from their backup QBs.”
But tone probably played a role, too.
Kaepernick is an obvious target for criticism because he was the first NFL player to protest during the anthem, and his actions sparked a national conversation. But he became a lightning rod not just for his message, but how he delivered it.
He first sat, not kneeled, during the national anthem, a key distinction that even those sympathetic to his cause realized.
He wore socks depicting police officers as pigs.
And he made supportive comments about Fidel Castro, even drawing a moral equivalence between Cuba and the United States when discussing human rights.
Stills and Thomas, meanwhile, went out of their way to be inclusive. They established a productive dialogue with the Broward Sheriff’s Office and held pregame tailgate parties so law enforcement officers and members of the black community could have fellowship.
And Thomas participated in a forum on race relations at the Super Bowl hosted by Ross’ RISE initiative.
No doubt, Kaepernick has also made real contributions to the community. Earlier this month, he convinced Turkish Airlines to fly food, water, and aid to the in-need people of Somalia.
But could some of his more inflammatory comments outweigh the real positive change he’s made, and be enough to keep him unemployed?
Perhaps. But only the 32 NFL teams know for sure.