Colin Kaepernick is, without question, the most polarizing figure in sports today. But Kaepernick, who quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013, has never been arrested, has never been accused of hitting a woman. He has never been pulled over and charged with DUI or accused of cheating his sport by taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Athletes accused of committing these offenses are frequently welcomed back to their sports with open arms. In 2015, linebacker Greg Hardy, who had been found guilty of domestic abuse by a judge, was signed by the Dallas Cowboys after he avoided jail by asking for a jury trial and reportedly reaching a financial settlement with the victim, who then failed to show up to testify in court. The charges against Hardy, who has continued to maintain his innocence, were subsequently dismissed.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was inducted recently into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not only signed Hardy but also at one point called him “one of the real leaders of this team.”
This is the same Jones who brought Josh Brent back after Brent had been found guilty of vehicular manslaughter after a teammate died in an accident when Brent was driving drunk.
Michael Floyd, a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals last season, served a brief jail sentence this year after being found guilty on a plea bargain of “extreme DUI” — his second DUI conviction. He was signed this spring by the Minnesota Vikings.
Fans don’t seem to be bothered by athletes who commit crimes, even crimes of violence. When the Baltimore Ravens released Ray Rice after he was caught on camera in an elevator punching his then-fiancee, many fans wore “Free Ray Rice” T-shirts in his honor.
The list goes on.
But if you fail to stand for the national anthem and you say you are doing it to protest police brutality committed against African-Americans, you are anathema to many people — notably the 32 NFL owners.
No one thinks that the 32 white men who own NFL teams ever got together and said, “Don’t sign Kaepernick,” who became a free agent in March. Apparently, they didn’t need to.
John Mara, owner of the New York Giants, has been the most honest of the owners, saying that he received numerous letters from fans who vowed to cancel their season tickets if Kaepernick or any player who “disrespected” the flag played for his team.
At least Mara was being honest. Other owners and general managers have whispered (anonymously, of course) in the ears of more-than-willing-to-listen media members that Kaepernick is just not good enough to be signed.
If Kaepernick were Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott or any of the other star quarterbacks in the league, he’d have a job. But he’s a borderline starter right now. You can take on a polarizing issue, or you can be an ordinary player. You can’t do both.
Apparently, it doesn’t matter to the “love it or leave it” crowd that many military members have defended Kaepernick, saying things like “The reason we fought overseas was to protect his or anyone else’s right to protest.”
Kaepernick is actually an opportunity for the NFL. All it takes is one team to say publicly: We may disagree with his tactics, but he’s committed no crime and we will judge him on talent alone. The NFL, like most sports franchises, loves to prove its collective patriotism with salutes to the military — paid for, at times in the past, by the military. What’s more patriotic than freedom of speech?
Not signing Kaepernick because there might be backlash is the coward’s way out. The bravest person in this room is the man the cowards are running from.