Opinion: Colin Kaepernick didn’t sell out

The only thing that came faster than the takes about Colin Kaepernick and the NFL settling his collusion grievance on Friday afternoon for undiscloded terms was the barrage of warnings about the takes to come.

Which is where are with Kaepernick. Few people truly listened to his words in the wake of the first time he kneeled, when he explained the purpose of his silent and respectful protest during the playing of the national anthem. Now, years later, Kaepernick’s words and intentions hardly seem to matter at all to his detractors. He exists as a concept, upon which we project our already held beliefs. Our takes.

I’m not here to argue I am any better. But for people who are arguing that Kaepernick could have gotten a better result, that he could have “won” in this situation and failed to, doesn’t understand what made him kneel in the first place.

To be clear: Kaepernick, whose biological father is black, kneeled to protest, among other things, systemic racism. He was subsequently blackballed from the league and when he attempted to prove as much, the NFL – which is, when it comes down to it, 31 very wealthy families (the Packers have a board of directors representing their share holders) and a commissioner working in their interest – bought his silence.

But Kaepernick did not sell out. He did what he had to do, because he still operates within a system built to silence voices like his, the system he protested in the first place.

Kaepernick, an already wealthy man from the money he made playing football and as the face of a Nike campaigns, could, according to Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman, be receiving between $60 and $80 million from the league. And, yes, a monetary figure that high makes it difficult to see any of this as a broader stroke of the larger struggle fought for the sake of the oppressed, but it is one. Kaepernick may have gone into this with lofty goals, like definitively showing the public once and for all that he was punished by the league after it failed to silence him. Or to set a precedent that would ensure players could, in the future, speak without fear of such drastic repercussion.

Yet in the end he wisely backed away from letting the process take its full course. And there was nothing, really, that Kaepernick could have done differently. Whatever outcome you think he should have sought was too unlikely or unsavory.

If you think his goal should have been to find a place back on the playing field, that was never really an option. The best he could have hoped for was relief in the form of money. The courts weren’t going to force a team to give him a job.

If you think he should have continued on so that whatever his lawyers have discovered could become public, you fail to consider what the league would have tried to present as it painted Kaepernick as a player unworthy of a contract. It would have gotten ugly. The NFL tried to bring Tom Brady to his knees over deflated footballs; what do you think its lawyers would have done to try and smear Colin Kaepernick?

Besides, do you really need to see that two executives exchanged text messages saying they won’t sign Kaepernick to know that Kaepernick was denied jobs he was qualified to have? It’s been blatantly obvious to anyone taking a clear look at the situation. Late last year, the Redskins should have considered him but made up a lousy excuse instead. Prior to that, officials from the Broncos, Texans, Packers, and Cardinals all trotted out supposed reasons for not signing Kaepernick that were phony and transparent.

Anyone who was going to believe that the league blackballed Kaepernick already did, based on clear and plain evidence. The league is starved for QBs and kept trotting Nathan Peterman out as a real option.

Even if collusion was proved, people carrying water for the NFL would have continued to make excuses for the owners. No matter how long this went, or what was made public, people would have held fast to their beliefs, whatever they are.

And if you think Kaepernick should have held firm in hopes of extracting more money from the NFL, well … his case, while it showed promise in these early stages, remained difficult to win. Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann wrote the definitive piece on this, as per usual, and it includes these words:

To prove collusion, Kaepernick needed to establish more than teams deciding to exclude him because they disagreed with his kneeling or his political views. In fact, a team owner or general manager could have openly admitted to not offering Kaepernick a contract because of the anthem without such an admission proving collusion. Collusion, instead, requires cooperation or agreement between at least two teams, or between at least one team and the league, to deprive Kaepernick of the chance to play.

So essentially every team in the league that needed a QB over the last two years could have copped to not wanting Kaepernick because he dared to protest and Kaepernick still would have lost. He would have needed clear evidence that two teams worked together to make that decision and while the NFL must fear that such evidence exists, or else it wouldn’t have capitulated, Kaepernick’s legal team faced a daunting task.

And so here we are: The NFL has agreed to pay out what amounts to a meaningless sum (for a $15-billion-a-year enterprise) so that none of its executives had to be on the record pointing out that a player protesting racial injustice was grounds for excommunication from the league (even though they’ve made that clear through their actions).

Kaepernick’s lawyer floated over the weekend the idea that a return to the NFL could be imminent, which must at least mean the confidential agreement between him and the league does not preclude a return. After all this time and acrimony, that possibility feels quite farfetched … but the saga has already been so long and strange. The NFL’s owners appear to have paid the price for keeping Kaepernick and his “distractions” out of the league. Do they really want to risk the scorn of President Donald Trump and the conservative-leaning corporations that provide so much of their sponsorship money now? Time will tell.

Either way, we await Kaepernick’s next move. He has already made history by giving up the prime (and probably more) of a promising career to stoke a substantial discussion of race and inequality in America. And now, at the very least, he’ll get back to work on the ground, in the places that need it most.

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