By now, it’s become abundantly clear that Colin Kaepernick’s career as an NFL quarterback is effectively over. His decision to sit, and then kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest against anti-black institutional racism touched off a controversy that eventually became a national obsession. On one side were those who felt that this protest was tantamount to disrespect for the country and for the military, and on the other side were those who felt that the flag and the promise of freedom and liberty it symbolizes wasn’t fully extended to all citizens.
At this point, it doesn’t matter if the 32 NFL owners have made Colin Kaepernick a pariah for his nonviolent political demonstration. By passing on signing him in favor of inferior quarterbacks, it can plausibly be argued that NFL owners have spared Colin Kaepernick’s life. After all, now he won’t have to endure the bone-crushing tackles and concussion-inducing injuries that render the average NFL player’s life expectancy a woeful two decades shorter than that of the average American man. Even if an NFL team were to make room on their roster for Kaepernick, returning to the NFL would probably undermine his opportunity to become a figure larger than a sports hero.
Instead, what the myopic NFL has done is set the stage for Colin Kaepernick to become a political martyr. If there is anything that the history of American sports has shown, it is that it loves to ostracize black athletes who protest racism during their careers, only to lionize them decades later. We’ve seen this time and time again. From Jesse Owens, to Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith–black athletes have been spat upon, blackballed, and suffered all manner of vituperation and opprobrium for daring to speak up against anti-black racism. Decades later, these former black sheep become American heroes, and the national zeitgeist surrounding them undergoes a metamorphosis from pariahs to revered symbols of dignity and grace. When ostracism gives way to retired jerseys and worldwide adulation, former critics pretend that they had always been fans. This is not only the story of America and its politically active black sports heroes. In fact, this is the story of America and race. It is not hyperbolic to compare the tradition of black athletes who were shunned for their racial stances to the larger tradition of black civil rights figures in general. Though the black athletes generally were not beaten or killed for their defiance in the face of racism, what they share in common with other black figures who have become symbols for civil rights is that they became national treasures in the decades following their activism.
I suspect that when Colin Kaepernick first laced up his cleats to play football, he had done so in the hopes that the legend he would create for himself would be one of gridiron greatness. It is hard to believe that he ever thought that he would become another in a long line black athletes who would transcend his chosen sport to symbolize the enduring struggle for equal treatment. Now that his career has been cut short not by injury and a declining skillset, but by personal politics and the larger society’s desire to keep him in his place, perhaps his departure from football has given him another two decades of lifespan to watch himself become a legend for reasons he never could have anticipated.