When Colin Kaepernick opted out of his 49ers contract before NFL free agency began in March, he likely did not expect that, more than three months later, he’d still be out of a job. However, with not only the initial free agent rush behind us, but also the draft and every teams’ offseason training activities and mandatory minicamps, the quarterback continues to be unemployed.
Many are of the belief that Kaepernick is being deliberately shunned for his social activism, specifically his protests last season during the national anthem. That group includes Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who said this week that Kaepernick is being “blackballed” by the NFL for raising issues of “race and politics in sports.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, though, sees Kaepernick’s situation differently. When asked about it Thursday, he called the NFL a “meritocracy,” where players “earn [their] opportunities.”
All the teams in his league “want to get better,” Goodell told NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer at a “Rams All-Access” event in Los Angeles (via ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez). “And if they see an opportunity to get better as a football team, they’re going to do it. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make their football team better.
“So those are football decisions,” Goodell continued. “They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”
Bennett’s Seahawks were the only team that has so far publicly shown any interest in Kaepernick, who helped San Francisco to a Super Bowl and two NFC championship games in six seasons. The 29-year-old Nevada product struggled with injuries and inconsistent play over the past two years, even losing his job to Blaine Gabbert for a spell, but he managed to throw 16 touchdown passes against just four interceptions last season, while remaining a dangerous threat on the ground (69 carries for 468 yards and two touchdowns).
Yet even as Seattle Coach Pete Carroll praised Kaepernick as “a fantastic football player” and called him “a starter in this league,” the Seahawks passed on the quarterback in favor of Austin Davis, a 28-year-old with a much less impressive résumé. That continued a pattern this offseason, in which NFL teams have signed the likes of Gabbert, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley, Ryan Mallett and Case Keenum, arguably none of whom can match Kaepernick’s effectiveness.
When asked if he would like to see Kaepernick get signed, Goodell said, “I don’t get involved in personnel decisions with the clubs. Those are decisions that the 32 clubs are going to have to make individually. They’re going to give whatever player they think can help them win that opportunity.
“And I think that’s what’s great about the NFL is that we’re a meritocracy, and you earn your opportunities and you get to keep your opportunities on the way you perform, ultimately,” the commissioner added. “That’s what the NFL is about. I think that’s why fans love the game. People go out and they earn those opportunities, and it’s a competitive league, which is great for us.”
Some fans definitely did not love Kaepernick’s anthem protests, as Giants owner John Mara could attest. “All my years being in the league, I never received more emotional mail from people than I did about that issue,” Mara, who joined the Giants in 1991, said last month. “‘If any of your players ever do that, we are never coming to another Giants game.’ It wasn’t one or two letters. It was a lot. It’s an emotional, emotional issue for a lot of people, more so than any other issue I’ve run into.”
On the other hand, some fans applauded Kaepernick for taking a courageous stance, given the criticism he was receiving on a hot-button issue, as well as for putting his ideals into action, both in terms of his time and money. In addition, several other NFL players followed suit with their own protests last season, and Bennett said, “The league is predominantly African American, so the issue that he’s dealing with is what we’re all dealing with.”
Nevertheless, despite letting it be known that he had no plans to continue his anthem protests this season, Kaepernick remains unsigned. Goodell referred Thursday to Mara’s comments by saying, “It did spark conversation, which I think is a part of what Colin Kaepernick intended to do.
“I don’t think that’s going to affect people from saying, ‘I’m going to do what’s in the best interest of my football team and give my team the best chance to win,'” the commissioner said, “because that’s what every team wants to do.”