Three years ago, Roger Goodell was asked during a live speaking event whether or not Colin Kaepernick had been blacklisted from the NFL.
“[Teams] are going to do whatever it takes to make their football team better,” the NFL commissioner said. “So those are football decisions. They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”
Which is both true and not an answer to the question.
From the perspective of what now seems like antiquity, teams were right not to want Kaepernick.
Like all large corporations, the NFL has a bunch of institutional weak spots. Kaepernick was the human laser pointer highlighting each one of them.
He might or might not help you win football games, but he was very definitely going to give you a media-relations cluster headache.
So while freezing Kaepernick out was not a morally courageous stand (which is why Goodell never tried to defend it), it was rational.
Well, I’m not sure if you’ve been reading the news, but the situation on the ground has changed a little. As a result, a 32-year-old who hasn’t played a professional down since New Year’s Day, 2017, is now a hot property.
Goodell signalled this change of ownership’s withered, collective heart in an interview on Monday.
“If [Kaepernick] wants to resume his career in the NFL, then obviously it’s gonna take a team to make that decision,” Goodell said. “I welcome that, support a club making that decision and encourage them to do that.”
Goodell managed to restrain himself from grabbing hold of the camera, getting his face right up into it and saying, “Please. Please. I’m begging you to sign him. For the love of God, am I the only one reading the internet?”
Whichever team takes Kaepernick isn’t hiring a quarterback. They are purchasing the blessing of a martyr. It won’t make your business impervious to criticism, but it’s close.
This is how fast things are moving now.
In May, money was the most important thing in sports, its foundation. And the foundation was cracking.
Sure, everyone loves the game and giving back and bringing communities together. But only if they’re making as much money as possible. Once you took the money away, everyone went feral. Baseball is the most ridiculous example. Major League Baseball’s solution to making less money? Make no money, out of spite.
By June, money was out of style. Now there’s an even more valuable commodity, one that very few people had the foresight to stockpile – public trust. Those who thought they had a bunch of it are figuring out in a hurry that whatever they’ve got, it’s not enough.
There are no Jacobins in the sports end of this story. No one involved actually wants to burn the system down. If you find yourself regularly being interviewed on TV, the system’s been pretty good to you.
This hasn’t stopped a lot of famous people from discovering recently that they are, in fact, anti-establishmentarians. It does not seem to have occurred to them that they are also the establishment.
The people who run sports don’t have the luxury of cognitive dissonance. They’re too busy worrying about getting hauled into the streets for being what they’ve always been – out of touch.
They would like to be on the side of revolt, since it seems to be winning. But they don’t want things to change too much. That could be expensive.
The players have their own interests to protect. They want more of everything – money, transparency, a hand in how things are run, freedom to say what they’d like. The cultural moment has swung a lot of leverage in their direction.
But they have their own PR tightrope to walk. They want to continue under the current regime, but don’t necessarily want to be seen as part of it.
So when Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving suggested the postponed NBA season be ended as an act of protest, the vast majority of his colleagues said nothing, at least in public. What could they say? That they like doing their jobs? That they are not unhappy with management? That they enjoy being paid?
On some level, everyone is in this together. They may not all like each other, but they recognize that après guys like Roger Goodell, le déluge.
Kaepernick is dangerous because he is not part of this system. Having been tossed out of it, he was meant to be forgotten. It’s always worked like that before.
Instead, he became more famous for not playing football than he ever was for playing it. Now he has the power to forgive some of the NFL’s sins.
Kaepernick hasn’t said anything recently about his future job plans. One presumes he’s too busy enjoying watching the NFL twist in the wind.
His leverage is nearly unlimited. He can come back, be good or not, play or not play, say whatever he wants, walk into the owner’s office and kneel on his desk for an hour. One side will cheer him and the other will say, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”
But if Kaepernick comes back, regardless of what he says or does, it’s a win for the system. You can’t be inside and outside at the same time.
It’s his life and his choice. There is no “wrong” decision. It’s just a decision.
But as an admirer of a certain amount of chaos, as well as chickens who come home to roost, I know which direction I’d like to see Kaepernick go.