Still blackballed: American football's most recognisable exile

With another NFL season set to begin in two weeks, Colin Kaepernick remains an outcast.

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     In this Dec 18, 2016, file photo, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneels during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game [John Bazemore/AP]
    In this Dec 18, 2016, file photo, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneels during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game [John Bazemore/AP]

    It has been roughly 600 days since the embattled American football player, Colin Kaepernick, suited up to compete in the National Football League. Another season of the sport, which has effectively succeeded baseball as America's favourite sport, is due to kick off on September 6, without supremely skilled Kaepernick on an NFL roster.

    While marooned from the NFL, Kaepernick - and the movement he spearheaded at the beginning of his final season - remains a topic of popular sporting and political discussions. By kneeling during the US national anthem before each match, Kaepernick was standing against the structural racism pervading American streets, manifested most violently by the police brutality against unarmed black civilians. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour," Kaepernick said to NFL media before the 2016 regular season began, and continued "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

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    Kaepernick continued his protest throughout the 2016 season campaign, quickly emerging into a figure that fused the world of sport with the turbulent racial realities gripping the US. For victims of police brutality and racial justice advocates, Kaepernick was far more than an NFL quarterback, but a hero. For NFL owners and brass that strategically infused dogmatic patriotism and militarism into the league's brand, Kaepernick was far more than the lead player on one of its most storied franchises, but a pariah. Nearly two years after he took a knee, and took the mantle of the modern revolutionary in sport, Kaepernick still finds himself exiled from the sport he is skilled enough to compete in, and still longs to play.

    Skills not in question

    More than just coveting a quarterback who appeared in a Super Bowl, most teams would kill to land a signal-caller with the rare experience of leading his team to a Super Bowl - the NFL championship game. Particularly, one who is still relatively young for the position at age 30, boasts a career quarterback rating of nearly 90 percent, which Kaepernick bested during his final season before being blackballed from the league. Kaepernick, who threw and ran for 18 touchdowns versus only four interceptions that season was no NFL journeymen. Nor was he an aging quarterback with fading athleticism or a weakening arm. In fact, Kaepernick's final season was by comparison to other players in his position a strong campaign. 

    Still at the prime of his physical talents, Kaepernick remains a dual-threat at quarterback - the most important position in football, who, at a minimum, could compete for a number of starting quarterback positions in the NFL. And at maximum, possesses the experience and skills to earn one of the two backup positions slotted by every team in the league. It is inarguable, even for his biggest (political) detractors, that Kaepernick is not one of the best 96 quarterbacks in the league. Yet, his skill and capacity to lead a franchise are not in question. NFL owners would all scramble to sign a quarterback with the ability of a Kaepernick, who was not named "Kaepernick". 

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    Although he has consistently expressed a desire to return, Kaepernick has received no meaningful invitations to compete for a spot on an NFL roster. More than the positions he took, NFL owners are collectively frightened by what he has come to symbolise - political resistance, and rebellion from the NFL's relentless suppression of individuality and expression among its athletes - particularly black athletes, like Kaepernick, who comprise 80 percent of the league's players, who dare to speak on the injustices inflicted on people who look like them, and use their star as a platform to generate consciousness, not just ratings. 

    More than a game

    Kaepernick threw his last NFL pass 19 days before Donald Trump was inaugurated into the White House. While these two events may appear to be unrelated, the movement that Kaepernick led on the football field collided with the very essence of the white supremacist climate ushered in by the incoming President. Trump, who holds close relationships with many NFL owners, who collectively raised nearly $8m for his inauguration, would steer the league in an even more reactionary and intolerant direction.

    Nine days after winning the election, Trump took a shot at Kaepernick, tweeting: "The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!" The lines on the pitch was deepened, and Trump - now the president-elect - would embolden a heightened degree of opposition to Kaepernick, and foreshadow the formal rule the NFL adopted on May 24, 2018, mandating that players stand during the national anthem - or remain, not visible to the public or televisions cameras, in the locker room. The new rule was a direct response to the resistance modelled by Colin Kaepernick, who filed a collusion case against the NFL for blackballing him from the league.  

    With another NFL season set to begin in two weeks, one of the sport's most recognisable names - and perhaps its most transcendent figure - remains an outcast. Yet, his jersey remains draped over the shoulders of fans in stadiums and cities across the country, and the contributions he made on and off the pitch heavy on the minds of American football fans and social justice advocates everywhere. Colin Kaepernick may never suit up for another game, but every day that passes without him on an NFL roster only augments the indictment against the league that blackballed him, and amplifies the injustices he stood down for, and spoke out against.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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