clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Addressing racial issues in the NFL won’t mean anything until Colin Kaepernick is signed

Nothing commissioner Roger Goodell or team owners and coaches say will have any weight until that wrong is righted.

Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem before a 49ers-Buccaneers game in 2016.
Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem before a 49ers-Buccaneers game in 2016.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Unless an NFL team signs Colin Kaepernick for the 2020 season, none of the vows for change, none of the apologies for past bad behavior and none of the emotional team meetings to discuss racial inequality will mean anything.

The league has before it the only opportunity that matters. It has had that opportunity since Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March 2017. George Floyd’s death might have helped everyone find his or her voice, but Kaepernick’s unofficial blacklisting demands more than words.

Nothing commissioner Roger Goodell or team owners and coaches say will have any weight until that wrong is righted.

Kaepernick took a knee to protest social injustice, and the league has been sprinting from him ever since.

With so many Americans demanding change since a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, killing him, there may be more of an appetite now to sign a lightning rod who also happens to play quarterback. It shouldn’t take a terrible death, protests and rioting to make people realize that a player being effectively banned from the league for exercising his right to freedom of speech is reprehensible.

But it did. Maybe it doesn’t matter how we got here. We’re here. Time to rectify the situation.

Two weeks ago, the Bears had a video meeting with players and coaches to discuss Floyd’s death and its aftermath. Participants described it as emotional, and coach Matt Nagy said he felt a “togetherness.’’

The Bears failed the major exam (Kaepernick) yet gushed about acing an oral quiz about being Black in America. You have to start somewhere, but it sure would have been better if they had started in 2017 by signing the quarterback who took a knee during the national anthem. Whatever they say about being progressive and whatever they say about supporting Kaepernick’s right to express himself, all you need to know is that they signed the abominable Mike Glennon rather than the protester. I don’t know how general manager Ryan Pace can look a Black player in the eye after that.

But the Bears are one of 32 teams that refused to sign Kaepernick, apparently out of fear of alienating that part of the fan base that disagreed with his stance. They weren’t alone in fearing the economic fallout of empty seats. Is that cowardice or just business? Probably both.

If NFL owners don’t approve of Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality against people of color, that’s their right. They don’t have to sign him. But they can’t then turn around and tell their players, many of them Black, that they care about the problems that have haunted African Americans for generations. They can’t hold meetings and declare progress on racial issues. Not with Kaepernick on the outside looking in. Not when Kaepernick is better than some starting quarterbacks and most backups.

The only thing that will point to progress is the 32-year-old quarterback on an NFL roster. Goodell recently said he has been encouraging teams to sign the quarterback. Better late than never from old Rog, I suppose. He did the required mea culpa video June 5, apologizing for the league’s plugged-up ears when it came to players’ past complaints about racial injustice. That would have been heartening had he mentioned Kaepernick during the video. Oops.

“We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter,’’ Goodell said.

If it did, Kaepernick wouldn’t have gone the last three seasons without playing football.

If it did, one team — one! — would have found the backbone to do the right thing.

Instead, we now are in the middle of the Great Apology Tour in which the most important thing is not togetherness, but its opposite — the beating back of dissension. Nothing scares a football coach more than a group of players going one direction and everybody else going another.

But it’s about actions, not words. The NFL has spoken — no one has signed Kaepernick.

Race isn’t just an NFL problem, of course. Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy made the decision to slip on a T-shirt from One America News, a far-right cable network that recently criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. Now he’s apologizing to any African American he has ever encountered. Sorry, coach. Actions, not words.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if an NFL team signed Kaepernick? Why don’t we find out?

In the wake of Floyd’s death, lots of people want change in this country. They’ve had enough of a system that is so stacked in favor of so few. Perhaps some fans would walk away from the team that signs him. But others might take their place to see the one who sacrificed part of his career for what he thought was the right thing to do.

Let’s find out. We’ll all be better for it.