The big idea: In the National Football League, the quarterback position is often the most valuable one on the field. As this off-season starts, what factors should NFL owners weigh when evaluating free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick? Arguably, his reputation as a political activist has eclipsed his on-field achievements.
The scenario: A standout multi-sport athlete from Turlock, Calif., Kaepernick played quarterback for the University of Nevada. Though he was drafted to play baseball by the Chicago Cubs, Kaepernick chose to pursue professional football. He started strong in the NFL: In his first two seasons as a starting quarterback, Kaepernick led the San Francisco 49ers to a division championship in 2012 and a Super Bowl appearance in 2013.
In 2015, Kaepernick was plagued by a shoulder injury, and by the start of 2016, Kaepernick developed an agenda bigger than football. In the first preseason game of the 2016 NFL season, he began a season-long protest against racial oppression by kneeling during the National Anthem prior to games. At the time, Kaepernick said he was willing to risk his career and endorsements to stand up for “what is right.” The 49ers’ head coach supported Kaepernick’s right to free speech, but the public reaction to his protest was mixed — ranging from supportive to confused or angry. The issue escalated into a national debate when President Trump gave a speech suggesting NFL owners should fire players who knelt during the anthem, saying their actions disrespected the American flag and those who fight for it. That following Sunday, in response, teams across the NFL knelt, locked arms or stayed in the locker room during the National Anthem.
The resolution: Kaepernick and the 49ers parted company in the 2017 off-season. Kaepernick opted out of a contract that 49ers management said wouldn’t have been renewed. Despite his credentials, Kaepernick remains an unsigned free agent and has filed a grievance against NFL owners alleging collusion in the decision not to hire him. But while his NFL career has stalled, Kaepernick’s personal brand has continued to grow — he completed his $1 million charitable pledge to grass-roots organizations to help address issues like poverty, mental health and homelessness. In January, Kaepernick received Sports Illustrated’s Muhammed Ali Legacy award.
The lesson: In passing on Kaepernick, NFL franchises have signaled they believe the quarterback’s potential “brand risk” outweighs his on-field value. Kaepernick’s complaint against the NFL — the ownership of which is overwhelmingly older, white and male — alleges collusion, or groupthink. Is there an upside from Kaepernick’s activism and personal brand? Might a choice for Kaepernick — even as a backup QB — be seen as a socially progressive stand, distinguishing one franchise from the other 31 to a new, diverse, and younger audience? Could a team become an “employer of choice” in a league where African American talent dominates? With viewership on the decline and the average viewer age of 50, the NFL, as a whole, should act soon.
Hernandez is an associate business professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Siragusa is an MBA candidate (’18) at Darden.