Colin Kaepernick and the dilemma of how to register your protest
I’ll watch the Super Bowl this year, but I won’t be happy about it.
Except for the Super Bowl, I haven’t watched a National Football League game since the NFL froze Colin Kaepernick out of his career. He last quarterbacked for the San Francisco 49ers January 1, 2017. (Well, there were a couple times I watched a game to be sociable.)
My lonely little protest often has me wondering about the value of this personal boycott.
In case your memory is hazy or you’re not a footballer at all, Kaepernick didn’t retire or suddenly lose his skills. What he did was kneel during the pre-game national anthem to protest police killings of black people. Six years later the reason for his protest remains. Just last month Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by Memphis police.
Kaepernick knelt in 2016 to call attention to the disproportionate number of deaths of people of color during encounters with police. While officers involved were sometimes suspended from their jobs, the deaths often came with no criminal convictions or even charges being filed. Kaepernick said at the time, “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Fire the protesters
Over the years, outrage over the all-too-frequent police killings usually comes with public pleading to keep protests peaceful. Peaceful protest is exactly what Kaepernick did. Several other players around the League knelt as well.
But apparently peaceful protest wasn’t acceptable either.
Fans booed. TV ratings dropped. Then-president Trump weighed in, urging fans to leave games and team owners to fire protesting players. He sent vice-president Pence to a game in order to publicly walk out if there was any kneeling. Which there was and which he did.
After that, no one would hire this quarterback with an entertaining playing style and who took his team to a Super Bowl. While Kaepernick waited for a job offer, several teams with openings went ahead and signed lesser-skilled quarterbacks.
Sound fishy? In a private moment even the NFL might agree. In 2019 lawyers for Kaepernick were gathering evidence for a collusion complaint, when the NFL, Kaepernick, and another player reached a settlement. Speculation was that in the agreement, Kaepernick got paid upwards of a gazillion dollars. But we don’t know, because part of the settlement was that Kaepernick shut up about it.
I miss watching pro football, like I’ve done all my life. I’m learning to like college football, even though its what-the-heck-is-going-on playing style generally doesn’t match the more crisp sports artistry of the professional teams. I resent the overwhelming power of the NFL being used to crush desperately-needed attention to deadly racial injustice.
But what good am I really doing by listening to jazz and working a crossword puzzle instead of tuning in to the Sunday afternoon game?
The highest-rated broadcast in America
Certainly the rest of the country has moved on. Since Kaepernick last played, the seven most-watched television broadcasts in the United States have all been Super Bowls. I have friends who share my social justice leanings, but who cite NFL teams whose integrity they respect. They’re still watching the regular-season games on Sundays, as well as the Super Bowl.
So is there really any point to my NFL boycott?
To resolve my dilemma I find myself thinking about how I treat other questionable actors, like stores with owners who publicly support causes that offend me. I kinda try to stay away from those businesses, but I’m not very consistent about it. A more helpful place to look for instructive examples has been another entertainment obsession of mine, music.
Kanye West immediately comes to mind. He’s been a fascinating character to watch over the years. I’ve found myself wishing he wouldn’t obscure his talents by being so full of himself. I especially like his 808s & Heartbreak album. That came out in 2008 after his mom died, and it showed an artistically appealing level of humility. More recently his album Donda (his mom’s name), offered a variety of surprising and satisfying musical and lyrical twists. I could even overlook his bizarrely nutty fawning over Donald Trump as a wacky artist being wacky.
But his outbursts of antisemitism last year changed the game for me. When a song of his came up on my playlist a few weeks ago, it was no longer fun. I deleted him.
Well, Van Morrison is still fun
By contrast, I’ve puzzled over Eric Clapton and Van Morrison and their outspoken anti-COVID protection stances. Their disdain for public health, safety and general common decency made me mad. But for some reason, I could overlook their idiocy and still have fun listening to Layla and Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl and his brilliant Astral Weeks and Moondance albums.
But I can’t overlook Kanye. He’s not fun any more.
Neither is the National Football League.
My sourness over the NFL goes beyond Kaepernick. Since his shunning, evidence of racism festers. A pending class action suit credibly accuses the NFL of discrimination in the hiring of black coaches. In a sport where 60% of the players are African-American, only 2 of the 32 head coaches are black.
Then there are the mounting stories of the sport’s physical toll. Studies are done on the effects of repeated blows to players’ heads. Safety measures are added here and there. But pro football is inherently violent. And if a player is not one of the top names in the game, it’s a career that lasts just a few years then leaves a lifetime of damage to the body and the brain.
M&M’s and the culture wars
So as I nurture my fantasy that maybe some team will show the mortal courage to hire Kaepernick for some kind of job someday, I’ll watch the Super Bowl this year. I’ll watch hoping for the dazzling plays that make the best Super Bowls thrilling. I’ll hope Rihanna soars at halftime. I’ll watch for the ads—I hear M&M’s might weigh in to the culture wars by confronting the gender of their candies. I’ll watch because everyone else in the universe will be watching and I don’t want to feel left out.
But when the regular season resumes later this year, once again I won’t be watching. I no longer see competition between two elite groups of athletes. I see discrimination against black coaches. I see long-term brain injury with every block and tackle. I see one of the most powerful organizations in the country using its strength and its good-old-boy network of owners to cancel those who call attention to deadly racial injustice. I see Colin Kaepernick.
It’s just not fun any more.