In late August, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated for the national anthem to protest the systematic and unaccountable murder of black citizens by agents of the American state. After speaking to Nate Boyer, the long-snapper for the Seahawks and an Army veteran, he began kneeling during the anthem instead.
Hearing of Kaepernick’s action, my first thought was of a similar one, taken two years earlier, by members of the then-St. Louis Rams, who ran onto the field with their hands up following the murder of Michael Brown. I hadn’t really paid attention at the time, but I imagined that the discipline called down on the earlier protestors was harsh. Likely the players involved had been quietly released and were currently stocking shelves someplace. When I went back to verify this intuition, I was surprised to learn that it was entirely wrong. Nobody had been punished, and in fact several people said some supportive things, while the only criticism had come, as we now know to expect, from the police union.
Similarly, I expected Kaepernick’s protest to result in his being released from the 49ers and vanishing quickly from the public consciousness. He wasn’t even starting at quarterback anymore. No NFL team would want to put up with such a malcontent, and in this case why would they have to? Meanwhile the professional sports commentariat would explain that Kaepernick just wasn’t satisfied with his playing time—or maybe with his personal life, who knows—and that’s why he was taking a knee. The whole thing would blow over quickly.
I was wrong. Kaep couldn’t be released because his contract would make it too expensive to do so. He eventually started last weekend, but one of the first things I noticed was how little his status as a backup appeared in the conversation started by his protest. There are reasons for this.
A rising star as recently as two years ago, Kaep has been trapped in an ownership-induced slow-motion train wreck, touched off when Jed York, inheritor of the team by marriage, ran coach Jim Harbaugh out of town for the sin of going 44-19 over his first four years at the helm. Worse, Harbaugh had ungraciously amassed five playoff victories, more than the team had enjoyed in the fifteen years prior to his arrival, leading the Niners out of the desert into which they had wandered after the Steve Young-Joe Montana era.
Last year, with Harbaugh having fled to Michigan, and York family stooge Mike Tomsula elevated as his replacement, San Francisco imploded, hemorrhaging talent on the way to a 5-11 record. It is always astonishing to watch an obviously capable city stand idly by while a churlish pretender like York runs a successful franchise directly into the ground. The league has certainly never cared to protect its teams from this sort of hereditary malpractice, but the fans deserve some institutional mechanism for intervention; beyond simply refusing to buy tickets whose sale is often guaranteed by the polity anyway, as in nearby San Diego. Harbaugh, for his part, led Michigan to a 10-3 record and a victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl. This year his Wolverines are undefeated and enjoy a top five national ranking for the first time since 2007.
So Kaep’s being a backup doesn’t signify in the way that it might if he were on a team run by actual football professionals. More to the point, Kaepernick, in addition to seeing the same videos we all have, has also had his career compromised by the unchecked madness of white American privilege embodied in the person of Jed York. This year, the Niners, having banished Tomsula to the hinterlands after one season, currently sit at 1-5 under new coach Chip Kelly, who brings his own drama.
Kelly is indisputably one of the most innovative minds in the game, but he has not escaped suspicion on the race question, to put it mildly. In his previous stop, as head coach of Philadelphia, Kelly released DeSean Jackson following the wide receiver’s best statistical season and his third straight Pro Bowl selection, but not before smearing him in the press on account of his alleged friendship with employees of the Crips, a Los Angeles-based pharmaceutical syndicate. A year earlier, Kelly had given a new contract to white wide receiver Riley Cooper—who caught fewer yards in his best season than Jackson had in his worst—after he had been captured on tape shouting that he would “fight every nigger” at a Kenny Chesney concert. Then Kelly traded one of the game’s great running backs, LeSean McCoy, to Buffalo, after he had the temerity to become Philadelphia’s all-time leading rusher in a mere six seasons, two years faster than each of the previous record holders. “Kelly got rid of all the good black players,” McCoy said bluntly, when asked to explain his trade.
Interestingly, Philadelphia was also the site of one of the more revealing race-based controversies in league history. As incredible as it seems now, in 2003, Monday Night Football hired Rush Limbaugh to be one of its play-by-play announcers, a fact that sticks in my mind as the most damning counter-example to the bullshit narrative about progressive media bias. (“Calling the game today are Phil Simms, Dan Fouts, and Noam Chomsky. Great to have you here Noam!”) Blessedly, Rush lasted less than a season, or until he remarked, in all fascist innocence, that Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb, a runner-up for league MVP in his first full season as a starter and then coming off back to back appearances in the NFC championship game and three straight Pro Bowls—a precarious position for a black player in Philly, it seems—was totally overrated, having been unjustly hyped by a media machine desperate to see a black quarterback succeed.
The Russian historian Ilya Budraitkis has recently argued that conservatives often speak the truth about injustice and inequality inadvertently, as it were, in an effort to get people to accept it as the natural order of things. Limbaugh was not wrong about the media’s desire, but he was and is incapable of seeing that its source is distilled in his own stubborn, racist refusal to recognize black success, even when it is right in front of his eyes. If writers long for the success of black quarterbacks to be recognized, it’s because it’s impossible to follow football for any length of time and not be confronted by a series of grotesque double standards, like the one that gets DeSean Jackson fired for having friends from home while serial white rapist Ben Roethlisberger is rewarded with multiple contract extensions.
It was a similar standard, no doubt, that got Kelly immediately re-hired by San Francisco after his ineptitude as a general manager got him fired by Philly last off-season. One of his first moves was to install notorious white bust Blaine Gabbert as the starting quarterback, relegating Kaepernick to the bench, where, come August, he stayed for the playing of the national anthem. And it was having watched these double standards exist, untroubled, for so long, that made me certain that Kaepernick’s protest would be snuffed out. At best, he would be ignored, like the great Carlos Delgado, whose refusal to leave the dugout for the ritualistic 7th inning chant of “God Bless America” post-9/11 did not get in the way of his hitting 473 home runs over the course of his career, though it does appear to have destroyed his Hall of Fame prospects. At worst, he would be fired and shunned.
I think I finally knew how wrong I had been when I gingerly clicked on a headline promising something like “Chris Long offers perspective on Kaepernick protest.” Long is a 31-year-old white defensive end with long scraggly hair and lots of tattoos, currently playing for my Patriots. His father is broadcaster, fitness icon, and Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long. Here we go, I thought, what’s this white princeling in working-class drag going to accuse Kaep of now? Here’s what Long said:
I’ll make it pretty clear: I support my peers in exercising their right to protest. This is a wonderful country, and I think everyone agrees on that, but there are things in our country that can improve. I don’t think that by acknowledging as a white male that America isn’t the same for me, maybe, as it is for everybody, the same great place, that we’re complicit in the problem or that we’re saying America isn’t a great place.
If we’re saying there are incidents of oppression in this country, systematically or individually in this country, I don’t think saying, ‘Well, in country X, Y or Z it’s 10 times worse” is making things any better. I think that may be true, but why can’t we improve?
And listen, I’m just going to listen to my peers because I respect those guys, and I can’t put myself in their shoes, I play in a league that’s 70 percent black and my peers, guys I come to work with, guys I respect who are very socially aware and are intellectual guys, if they identify something that they think is worth putting their reputations on the line, creating controversy, I’m going to listen to those guys.
And I respect the anthem. I would never kneel for it. We all come from different walks of life and think differently about the anthem and the flag and what that means. But I think you can respect and find a lot of truth in what these guys are talking about, and not kneel. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas.
Listen, it’s been complicated. It’s brought out a lot of what we as fans and players think about the anthem; a lot of strong feelings on both sides. But I think we can all agree we love our vets. We love the vast majority of officers of law enforcement. But they are human beings too and there are isolated incidents that need to be better and I think all guys are saying is “Listen, most people might be great cops, great people that protect our communities, but when there are injustices, let’s find justice for those situations.”
I’ll go ahead and apologize for quoting Long at such length rather than Kaep himself, whose statements have been such models of respectful, disciplined intransigence that even Ruth Bader Ginsburg was forced to apologize for criticizing him. But, for better or for worse, I am no longer surprised by the insight that black athletes have into contemporary political conditions. There have been long stretches of my life where, as with the aforementioned Delgado, athletes of color have been the only public figures outside of certain patches of the culture industry or academe willing to speak something approaching the truth. What I was not prepared for was the way my own cynicism had closed my mind in advance to the possibility of white solidarity.
Perhaps solidarity is still too strong a word. Long neglected to say whether he is supporting Donald Trump, who according to the few existing surveys on the subject, enjoys near unanimous support among the league’s white players. LeSean McCoy’s new coach, Rex Ryan, reportedly a player favorite, has spoken at a Trump rallies. By week three of the season, Sports Illustrated reported various acts of protest by players on sixteen different teams, fully half the league. By week six it was impossible not to notice that not a single white player had joined them. “You need a white guy to join the fight. The white guy is super important to the fight,” Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told the Seattle Times. “For people to really see social injustices, there must be someone from the other side of the race who recognizes the problem, because a lot of times if just one race says there’s a problem, nobody is realistic about it.”
In the weeks since Colin Kaepernick began his protest, and doggedly stuck to it, the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—a silly little ditty that should be replaced by Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” as soon as humanly possible—has gone from a boring, low-stakes ritual to a fascinating pageant, as players across the country and at all levels kneel, link hands, lie down, or otherwise take the opportunity to express themselves. Even the Patriots, long known to live by the motto “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” have gotten in on the act, not only with statements like Long’s but when Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett stood with fists raised following the anthem, a gesture I never imagined I’d see on an NFL sideline but which is now almost common.
Though not, perhaps without consequences. Antonio Cromartie, the most visible protestor on the Indianapolis Colts, was suddenly released mid-season after owner Jim Irsay said the football field was not a suitable place for protest. Irsay himself is no angel, having been arrested for possession and DUI in 2014, which led to the revelation that his mistress had died of an overdose in a house Irsay purchased for her with Colts money. Irsay has a great deal of money after the people of Indianapolis paid $620 million of the $700 million the new Colts stadium cost, while Irsay keeps all the money from naming rights, advertising and luxury suites, money from tickets, food, drinks, merchandise, and parking. As the league confronts sharply diminished ratings, many are blaming the visibility and success of the Kaepernick-inspired protests, despite the otherwise widespread consensus—voiced by ex-commish Tagliabue, among others—that the owners’ relentless greed has jeopardized both player safety and the fan experience. But white owners everywhere have recently recovered the art of blaming the fallout from their own failures on people of color demanding equal rights as citizens. If 60 percent of white American men will vote for an incompetent ethno-nationalist landowner out of spite fermented from class anxiety, maybe it’s too much to imagine a millionaire gladiator taking a knee. Too much, but not too late. I’m still hoping.