Why the NFL/Kaepernick Saga Is Bigger than Football

November 25, 2019

Dave Zirin explains why Colin Kaepernick's ongoing struggle with the NFL is really an example of how Black dissent is punished in the US.

Dave Zirin explains why Colin Kaepernick's ongoing struggle with the NFL is really an example of how Black dissent is punished in the US.


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Story Transcript

JASON WHITLOCK: Colin Kaepernick works in an industry controlled by white businessmen. He plays the highest profile, most important position in all of sports. Kaepernick took a strong stand on one of the most polarizing issues in American history. Given those dynamics, if Kap wants to be taken seriously and affect real change, he should project a more professional image with his appearance. If he’s seeking Twitter fame and the adulation of Kaepernick, he should keep the Afro and continue tweeting his way to freedom.

JAY Z: For me it was like action, actionable item. What are we going to do with it? Everyone heard and we hear what you’re saying, and everybody knows I agree with what you’re saying, so what are we going to do? You know what I’m saying? Millions and millions of people and all, we get stuck on Colin not having a job. You know what I’m saying?

STEPHEN A. SMITH: You see? You see? He don’t want to play. He wants to be a marauder, but guess what? It ain’t working this time. All of us believe that Colin Kaepernick would have showed out and if he had showed out, I’m here to tell you I believe he would have had a job inside of two weeks.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

Colin Kaepernick is already a personality who elicits passionate opinions about his protest in the NFL against ongoing police brutality and racism in the US during the playing of the National Anthem. Opinions are just as pointed and divergent about his NFL tryout this past Saturday. But this issue is bigger than whether Kaepernick was right or wrong to do what he did, so that’s not what this segment is about. In this segment, I want to examine why this issue is really an example of how social change is challenged in popular culture in the US.

Here to help me unpack this as Dave Zirin. Dave is The Nation’s sports editor. He is the author of eight books on the politics of sports, most recently published was Jim Brown: Last Man Standing and Things That Make White People Uncomfortable written with the NFL’s Michael Bennett. Dave also hosts The Nation’s podcast Edge of Sports and is a cohost of WPFW’s The Collision with Etan Thomas. That is one of my favorite shows to listen to. Dave, thanks so much for joining me.

DAVE ZIRIN: Thanks for having me.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let’s dig right into this and I think we need to give a little bit of background to explain why this is even an issue. In your latest article in The Nation, you say that Roger Goodell in the NFL tried to bend Kaepernick to their will with this workout. Can you explain what you mean by that?

DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely. Colin Kaepernick was contacted out of the blue with three days notice and said he needed to make his way down to Atlanta for a workout for NFL teams. They said to him that there were conditions on this workout that he needed to show up without any media present whatsoever, that it would have to be entirely a closed workout. They said to him that it had to be on a Saturday even though Saturday is a very odd time to have a workout because most NFL teams are preparing for their Sunday games and scouts are watching college games. And most bizarrely, they wanted to get him to sign what’s being called a nonstandard injury waiver, which would have indemnified the NFL against any future lawsuits around the issue of collusion that Colin Kaepernick could possibly put against them.

Now Colin Kaepernick was already in Atlanta when news of this nonstandard injury waiver came to him and he rebelled against it, said he wasn’t going to do the workout on the NFL’s terms. He switched the workout to a high school an hour away from the Atlanta Falcon’s facility where it was going to take place. He made sure that the media was allowed inside, and they live streamed the workout and he refused to sign that injury waiver, so he did the entire workout on his own terms, even though the NFL did not want him to.

Now this undoubtedly costs Colin Kaepernick on some levels. About representatives from 24 teams showed up in Atlanta for the workout at Falcon’s headquarters. Only about five or six made the journey one hour away to watch the Colin Kaepernick workout. But at the same time, Colin Kaepernick benefited because he showed the world that his arm is still an absolute blowtorch and that he hasn’t lost it, that he’s in game shape and ready to play for an NFL team. So what you have right now is a situation that frankly is not that much different before this workout, which is what we’re still talking about. Does any NFL team have the courage to sign someone who so clearly deserves a job?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So I think there are a couple of things I need to clarify for our viewers who are not football fans like you and I. So let’s talk about the closed workout, the media not being present in the workout that the NFL set up. Is that usual that workouts for the NFL are closed to the media? Do they normally do that?

DAVE ZIRIN: Literally none of this is usual, like it’s not usual for the NFL to have a league wide workout. Teams normally, and actually when I say normally, I should be saying every single time, they work out players for the individual teams. So like, the Chicago Bears would call Colin Kaepernick’s agent and say we want to arrange a workout. So none of this was usual. What they wanted him to sign wasn’t usual. Having this league-wide event that was being called by NFL headquarters was certainly not usual. Doing it on a Saturday wasn’t usual. Doing it on three days notice wasn’t usual.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And then we get it in the middle of a regular football season on a Saturday also was very unusual.

DAVE ZIRIN: All very unusual. So these were extraordinary circumstances and because there’s no trust between Colin Kaepernick’s camp and the NFL, after three years of collusion, he insisted that the NFL not be the only people videotaping the workout for fear that they would edit the video or for fear that their lackeys in the media, and there are many, would leave the facility and say, oh, he just doesn’t have it anymore or ugh, their opinions really differ on whether or not he has the accuracy to make it in today’s NFL. He didn’t want any of that nonsense. So instead you had reporters live streaming it over Twitter and people could judge for themselves.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And that is really important because as you just pointed out, had this workout, that Kaepernick organized, had that not been open to the public, you wouldn’t have been able to say what you did just a few minutes ago that his arm is still an absolute blowtorch. That he is still accurate and passing and he hasn’t lost a step as far as being on the field is concerned. If he had gone along with this closed workout with the NFL, those questions would’ve still been either lingering because we don’t trust the NFL at this point, the public doesn’t, so much of the public doesn’t, or the narrative coming from the NFL would have been the one or two passes that didn’t connect and then the NFL could say, well, see, we gave him a shot, but he’s just lost it.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I’d be very remiss if I didn’t mention that these workouts are sometimes open to the public anyway and the press. So what Roger Goodell wanted was all of the positive publicity of saying, oh, there’s no collusion. Look at this. We can now put this chapter behind us and none of the transparency. And for Colin Kaepernick, that’s just not going to work. And it’s connected to why he wore a much remarked upon t-shirt during the workout that said Kunta Kinte.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Why is it connected to that?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, because for Colin Kaepernick and in popular culture, Kunta Kinte was of course the lead character in Alex Haley’s book series Roots, played by LeVar Burton in the famous mini-series. And Kunta Kinte was LeVar Burton’s name, was the character’s name, and he was beaten until he would accept his new name of Toby. And while saying over and over that his name was Kunta Kinte until he was beaten within an inch of his life. And this is Colin Kaepernick trying to say, “I will never be Toby for you. I remain Kunta Kinte.”

OVERSEER (VIC MORROW): I want to hear you say your name. Your name is Toby. What’s your name?

KUNTA KINTE (LEVAR BURTON): Kunta.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: It is so appropriate to get us to the next question that I’ve been itching to ask you. Now response to Kaepernick’s actions have been pretty brutal from some prominent sports commentators. You’ve got comments from Stephen A. Smith and Jason Whitlock and some other commentators. Even Jay-Z has criticized Kaepernick saying that he feels it was Kaepernick who turned the workout into a publicity stunt. What’s your take on this criticism of Kaepernick from the sports media fraternity, for lack of a better word and the suggestions that Kaepernick should have gone along with what you just very simply described as what seems like a pretty obvious legal trap that was badly disguised as a meaningless dog and pony show arranged by the NFL?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah. The contract has gone public and I showed it to a friend of mine who was an attorney and he said that nobody, no attorney in their right mind, it would be legalistic malpractice to have your client sign something like this, which would indemnify the person offering you a job against any future lawsuits. It was just absolutely ridiculous and insulting and there’s no way that you should sign that. You mentioned three people. You’re with three people. The only thing they have in common, honestly, is the fact that they’re all African American and very powerful. Their reasoning is different in all three lanes. Jason Whitlock, Stephen A. Smith and Jay Z.

Jason Whitlock for people who don’t know, he is a pretty hard right-wing commentator on Fox Sports News and a regular guest on Fox News. He’s had an ax to grind with Colin Kaepernick from day one precisely because he doesn’t like that Colin Kaepernick has used this stage of the NFL to protest, so he’s going to come out against Kaepernick no matter what. Colin Kaepernick could come out there looking like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning’s baby. It wouldn’t matter. Jason Whitlock would find a way to criticize him, so he in a lot of ways, is an irrelevancy to this discussion. Most people have written him off as somewhat of a buffoon.

Stephen A. Smith is actually a very important voice. He’s the most powerful voice of ESPN, which is the worldwide leader in sports. Now Stephen A. Smith is somebody who I would call politely an “access merchant: in that his value to the league is as somebody who spreads information that the league hands to him. And what the league handed him in this case was false information. Stephen A. Smith got played. They handed him information that Colin Kaepernick was going to get signed soon, they later handed him information that there was no different between the contract and a typical contract that anybody would sign before an NFL workout. He said this stuff and then when confronted with the truth that he actually wasn’t correct factually, he just blithered and blathered and talked very loud and was Screamin’ Stephen as he’s sometimes called.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: As he is wont to do.

DAVE ZIRIN: So Jason Whitlock carrying water for the right-wing of this country and Fox News and everything they represent. Steven A. Smith carrying water for the NFL. And then you have Jay-Z AKA Shawn Carter, a billionaire himself. He’s somebody who’s paid very well now to be Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner’s, racial justice whisper. The person who tells Roger Goodell what the NFL needs to do to build stronger ties to the black community. Ties that were frayed terribly by the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick. And Jay-Z’s aspirations, he’s made no secret about this, is to own an NFL team. So this is Jay-Z. So first there were all these rumors that Jay-Z was the one who set up the workout and then Jay-Z comes in and undercuts Colin Kaepernick and doesn’t stand up for him in the aftermath.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Oh my gosh. There’s so much stuff in what you just said about people who don’t understand the world of sports and sports commentating don’t know who Jason Whitlock is so they throw his name out and they don’t realize that he basically is exactly as you said, an employee of Fox News. And people don’t understand Stephen A. Smith’s relationship and some other commentators at ESPN who have been highly critical in many unfair ways of Kaepernick and very defensive of the NFL in this situation. And then there is Jay-Z, which is the pop culture icon that provides the direction for so many black NFL fans for how they should respond to this situation. So there are a lot of moving pieces to this. And this leads me to this question: Is this just about football? Is this just a football question?

DAVE ZIRIN: No.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Is this just a question of how this is business as usual in football or is this really an issue if we take a step back and look at the pieces fitting together, as you just explained, is this really an examination of how social and racial justice is challenged in this country? And what lessons can we take from this?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I think the number one lesson is that you have to be resolute in the face of people who try to tear you down. And I think that’s what Colin Kaepernick, that’s his example. And it’s difficult to overstate how much it would hurt the thousands of people who look to him as an exemplar of social justice if he bended and broke in the face of the National Football League. I think what we’ve learned also is that the NFL, and we could look at it as a microcosm of US society, cannot abide black descent. It can abide so much else. It can abide players who get caught up in all kinds of legal wranglings of a distasteful nature. It can abide franchise owners who get involved in legal wrangling, some of very distasteful nature. It can abide head injuries, it can abide violence against women, but it cannot abide black defiance.

And that’s very important to not just the racial–I’ll call it the racial psychosis of NFL ownership, which is except for one person entirely white and there are no black owners. It’s not just about that; it’s about the labor structure in the NFL. This is a league that depends on black labor for its survival. 70% of players are black, including most of the skill positions, and they need that labor force to be compliant. And they need Colin Kaepernick to be a ghost story instead of an animating spirit of resistance and rebellion inside the ranks of the NFL. They want him to be a ghost story that scares players to stay in line.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Oh my goodness. This is so much bigger than the NFL. It’s bigger than Colin Kaepernick. It is definitely bigger than football and sports. This really is an example of how justice for marginalized people, for black people, for native people, for other marginalized people, are challenged by the established power structure in this country. And I thank you so much Dave, for coming on today, taking the time to explain why this is bigger than Kaepernick getting a job. I really appreciate your time.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, no problem. It’s definitely bigger than one man’s job on one NFL team. It’s about whether or not people in the power have the right to silence us for our descent.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.