Colin Kaepernick Should’ve Known This Would Happen

By Jim Bahn (Flickr: Levi’s stadium opening) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At this point, if anyone disagrees that Colin Kaepernick’s political stance isn’t the reason he’s still unemployed despite pretty clearly being one of the best 32–and definitely one of the best 64–professional quarterbacks on the planet, they’re delusional. There’s no other logical explanation for why the league’s most progressive franchise decided to sign a complete scrub over a guy in his athletic prime who just led a team to the Super Bowl in the past few years.

When I heard the news that the Seahawks were signing Austin Davis over Kaepernick, though, I wasn’t upset. I knew this would happen.

When I quit my college’s football team–my political views and insistence on speaking out about them played a huge role in essentially blackballing me from the team–I learned that the status quo was more important to those in control than winning games. Like Kaepernick, I was a young, black quarterback who helped turn one of the worst teams in our league into a contender seemingly overnight. But what coincided with this uptick in winning percentage was a drastic culture change within the locker room.

I came into that locker room as a part of a class that was full of dudes that were honestly too good to be playing D3 college football. We didn’t come from the small towns in the middle of nowhere that a lot of our older teammates were from. We came from big schools–powerhouses in the state–that consistently sent dudes to the biggest college programs in the nation, and some even made it to the league. We were brash and talked shit from the beginning of practice until the end, but, most importantly, we were successful. We knew how to win, though only how to do so our own way, and that was a problem.

From day one, the coaches seemed a little baffled by our style of play–it conflicted with the way they thought the game should be played. They wanted us to be meek, to obediently fall in line and follow the losing culture they had spent years perfecting. They couldn’t understand how our style of play, our way of being, was what they recruited and that it was inseparable from us being as successful as we had been as athletes up to that point.

Being the quarterback, I was a sort of face for this unruliness, though it was tolerable as long as we were winning games. Once my dissension moved into matters of race (at one point, I questioned our star wideout on why he had a Confederate flag hanging proudly in his room, and I was pretty much told by everyone from the head coach down to shut up), things changed. I was no longer someone to be tolerated, but someone to be silenced or at least controlled. The way the coaches dealt with me changed. The way teammates, both white and black, dealt with me changed. I’d say that there was a conscious effort by some of the higher ups and maybe boosters in the athletic program to quarantine me so my views wouldn’t infect other black members of the team, but I’d sound like a conspiracy theorist if I said that.

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What’s always been most interesting to me, though, is the myriad ways other black teammates responded to the ingrained (white) culture of that team. By no means was there a consensus on whether black people were treated differently or even if racism played a factor in all of our lives. I mean, we were a bunch of 18 to 22 year olds who had barely left our hometowns up to that point. Of my black teammates, there was a diversity of experience. Some came from upper middle class backgrounds–the sons of college professors or lawyers–and grew up in white suburbs. Others came from lower-middle or lower class backgrounds and never had significant contact with white folks until they showed up to preseason camp for the first time. We all saw the world and navigated it differently.

One of the most poignant conversations I had during that period of time was with a close friend of mine who was on the team. He told me that, though he knew that black players got the short end of the stick, he loved the sport too much and would rather enjoy his last few years playing a game he loved than potentially jeopardize that by speaking up. Another friend (I use that word loosely) of mine, on the day that I quit, spent three hours essentially trying to convince me to transfer to another school because, in his mind, I’d ruined my reputation, and there was no coming back after what I’d done. He tried to tell me how my opinions were shortsighted because, despite racism 100% being a thing, not all white people were bad–especially not those at our liberal arts school full of “good white people”–so I made a huge mistake. Four years later, this same friend called me out of the blue to tell me that he now understands and agrees with the point I was trying to make.

Over the next few years after I quit the team, a few other black players quit, though not nearly as sloppy as I did. One even reached out to me to pick my brain before he finalized his decision. Most of the black players, though, stayed quiet, toed the line, and played out the remainder of their football careers on a losing team. I sometimes wonder what many of them thought of the decision that I made, and the way I chose to execute that decision.

I say all of this to say that what Colin Kaepernick did by kneeling during the anthem last season was career suicide, and he I have to believe that he knew it. He knew that the vast majority of players, even those that privately supported him, would not do so publicly. He knew that most would toe the line, keep their heads down, destroy their brains, and collect those checks. Kaep had to know that, by taking a knee, and then being so direct in the stance he took, that his employer would not support him. The league would not change. In fact, they’d castigate him. He’d become a pariah in the place that, since childhood, has probably been a haven for him.

No matter how much he has smoothed out the edges of the delivery of his message. No matter the amount of money he donates to organizations that any right-minded person would have no grievances with. No matter his insistence that he would stand for every national anthem ever played before a game from here on out if allowed to join a team, Colin Kaepernick will never be forgiven. The outcome is inevitable. Using a platform earned by conquering a white man’s game to stand up against the anti-black racism that white supremacy is built upon is the clearest way to say that you no longer want to play the game of football.

For my own sanity, I have to believe that Kaep knew his fate and welcomed it, though I wonder if he will ever regret his decision because I know, at times, that I do.

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