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Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick's Former Coaches Love Him, and It Might Not Matter

There's no one answer to why Colin Kaepernick is still looking for work, but it's increasingly clear that the deciding ones don't have much to do with football.

David Roth

/Sad Incredible Hulk music plays. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

There's more than one answer to the question of why Colin Kaepernick is unemployed after nearly a month as a free agent, and after a number of the objectively inferior talents on the market at his position have signed contracts. But past experience also points to that one fundamental answer. People were always going to take offense, and there was always going to be some kind of repercussion, and so this is all going more or less the only way it could go. Sports brings this out of people, and football really brings it out of people, and the people with the most invested in football's particular manias: the ones in the owner's suites, the people those owners empower to do the hiring and firing and negotiating and other administrative work, the people who make their livings translating and touting the wisdom of whatever those powerful people do. That was the risk Kaepernick was taking, and knew he was taking, when he decided to raise his voice.

"He's unemployed because he annoyed and offended our community of steakheaded scolds at some elemental level" is not a good enough answer for anyone to give on the record, though, and so it's not the answer that those people have given on Kaepernick. Off the record, executives and owners have been quite happy to call Kaepernick all kinds of things; a traitor and a phony and a dope, an "embarrassment to football." On the record, though, they've mostly said that Kaepernick is unemployed because can't do his job anymore—can't play quarterback well enough, or command the respect of his teammates thoroughly enough, or is insufficiently interested in doing what his difficult job requires. There are more convincing explanations for his slow-roll blackballing, but none more convenient.

There are several problems with this explanation, with the most obvious being that it doesn't appear to be true. Game tape from Kaepernick's (very respectable) 2016 season doesn't bear it out, as Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar found. The extent to which Kaepernick was not just respected but revered by his teammates doesn't bear it out, either. In a fine column on the complicated circumstances of Kaepernick's time in limbo, Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg talked to Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly about the quarterback they coached, and found that they, too, believe that Kaepernick very much deserves to be a NFL quarterback. For them, that has less to do with what Kaepernick can still do on the field and more to do with the way he's balanced his social justice endeavors with his insanely demanding day job.

Kelly, who coached Kaepernick during the 2016 season, remembers a player who was fanatically devoted to his job and his team, in the way that contemporary quarterbacks tend to be. "When Colin is with us, he is 100 percent football," Kelly told Rosenberg. "There's not, 'Hey, Coach, I don't have time for this.' That was never him. [The protest] never affected how he worked or what our workplace was like. And that's a credit to Colin."

When you're receiving the message. Photo by Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

More interesting, if also predictably more intense, is Harbaugh's response to Kaepernick. The two nearly won a Super Bowl together, and neither has experienced the same success without the other. Beyond that, though, Harbaugh's response to Kaepernick's protest evolved from an initial dismissal—the rote and half-reasoned jingo-umbrage at which much of the football community started and stayed—to something much different. Harbaugh both watched Kaepernick and listened to him, and further listened to the response of his University of Michigan players to that protest. While Harbaugh appears very much to have taken Kaepernick's message to heart, the willingness to listen always seemed to be more Kaepernick's point. "For Colin, and what Colin's doing and has been doing, when you really stop and listen and know where Colin is coming from ... he's trying to do this for his future kids, for my kids, for all of our kids," Harbaugh said. "He's a special person and a hero, in my opinion."

The part that qualifies as progress in all this, if there's progress to find here, is that none of the NFL decision-makers arrayed against Kaepernick are quite brave or quite stupid enough to say what they mean, which is that they were more offended by Kaepernick's decision to protest than they are by any of the injustices that he was protesting. This is the part of it that's specific to our time: the strategic cowardice of the anonymous source, the reversion to rhetoric of whinging woundedness and crocodile-tear disappointment instead of more straightforward and punitive swinging-dick bombast, the numbing corporate language that calls Kaepernick a distraction instead of something closer to what they mean. These people cannot really tell Kaepernick to shut up, which is something that many of them clearly very much want to do. So they say something simpler.

There was never a time, in the history of the NFL or in the history of anything else, when people were rational about sports. The shape and sound and variously violent particulars of our overreactions have changed, if only just to keep up with the times. But there was never really a point when sports people were capable of processing even a comparatively uncomplicated concept such as A Socially Aware Quarterback Exists. At any moment in the history of humans giving slightly too vigorous a shit about the NFL, such a thing would have baffled and angered people. It would have baffled and angered them in different, context-dependent ways at different times and in different contexts, but the rancid whinging and scornful grievance that have characterized the response to Colin Kaepernick since he took his broad and sincere protest against racial injustice public before the start of the last football season would always have been there. People are people, sports are sports, and people's worst and smallest failings also tend to be the most stubborn. It might be that, at this moment, the best we can hope to do is demand more convincing excuses for why they've chosen not to listen.