Another NFL season is in full swing. A few players are still kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, but the controversy has receded from the headlines — and from President Trump’s Twitter feed. The NFL has even reached a settlement — reported by the New York Times to be worth “considerably less than $10 million” — with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid, two former teammates on the San Francisco 49ers who claimed they were blackballed by the league for kneeling.
Reid is back in the league as the starting safety for the Carolina Panthers. Not Kaepernick. He is reported to be working out three hours a day starting at 5 a.m. and to be “literally in the best shape of his life.” He even trained this summer with star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. of the Cleveland Browns. His agent is reaching out to teams to get him a tryout — but apparently hasn’t gotten a single positive response.
This makes no football sense. Granted, Kaepernick hasn’t played since Jan. 1, 2017, but he’s only 31 years old — a decade younger than the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady — and all that inactivity means he’s a lot fresher than other players his age. Kaepernick played six years for the 49ers, leading them to two conference championship games and one Super Bowl. He threw 72 touchdowns to 30 interceptions. And his skills as both a runner and passer would seem to be a perfect fit for today’s NFL, which features mobile quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens. (I still have traumatic memories of Kaepernick running for three touchdowns and passing for two more in 2010 to lead the University of Nevada Wolfpack over my California Golden Bears.)
It’s not as though NFL teams aren’t in need of quarterbacks. In the first two weeks of the season, five teams — the New Orleans Saints, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New York Jets, the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars — lost their starting QBs for varying periods of time. This has led to the signing of backups J.T. Barrett (Saints), Paxton Lynch (Steelers), Joshua Dobbs (Jaguars) and David Fales (Jets). Who dat? They are all journeymen who have bounced around the league with no distinction. Not one has gotten his team anywhere close to a Super Bowl. They have hardly gotten on the field.
There is no football executive who can say with a straight face that Barrett, Lynch, Dobbs or Fales is a better player than Kaepernick. Heck, Kaepernick isn’t just better than these third-string QBs. His career quarterback rating (88.9) is higher than 15 of 35 starters in the NFL this year. (Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Miami Dolphins’ sometime starter, has a dismal rating of 44 in 2019!) But Kaepernick isn’t demanding to be a starter. He has said he would be content to hold a clipboard on the sideline.
So why isn’t he being given a chance? Some blame the kneeling controversy he initiated for a decline in the league’s TV ratings, but Kaepernick’s return could be a ratings bonanza. Interest in, and support for, Kaepernick remains so strong that his Nike ads are credited with boosting the company’s stock price.
Others suggest that Kaepernick would be a distraction to a team. But NFL teams don’t hesitate to sign troublemakers such as wide receiver Antonio Brown. He was bounced from the Steelers and then the Oakland Raiders after feuding with teammates and executives and then signed by the Patriots one day before he was accused of sexual assault in a lawsuit. The Patriots cut him after he allegedly sent intimidating messages to his accuser, and Brown now says he is done with football, but there are apparently still teams interested in him if he chooses to play. Kaepernick hasn’t been accused of anything other than making a political statement — and he has become more of a pariah than Brown.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the NFL is still blacklisting Kaepernick for political reasons. And it’s the politics of the owners rather than the fans that counts. According to FiveThirtyEight, only six NFL teams have a primarily Republican fan base. Most NFL fans lean Democratic — as you would expect in blue towns such as San Francisco, Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Seattle and Chicago. Presumably Democrats would not be nearly as offended by Kaepernick’s politics as Republicans.
But while NFL fans might be Democrats, the NFL’s wealthy owners are primarily Republicans. Nine NFL owners collectively donated $8.9 million to Trump’s inaugural and campaign committees. One of them — Jets owner Woody Johnson — is now ambassador to Britain. Even though Trump has said that Kaepernick should get another shot — “if he’s good enough” — he could easily reverse himself and blast Kaepernick if he should take the field, especially if he kneels again. NFL owners appear to be putting fealty to Trump — or at least fear of Trump — over the needs of their teams. To paraphrase another outspoken NFL player, just give Kap the damn ball.