Les Carpenter: The free-agent quarterback has been unsigned since March, but the protest movement he launched has only grown more visible in his absence
On Wednesday afternoon, the NFL will be forced again to confront a story it must wish to go away. At an hour when the leagues employees should be hustling home from their New York office they will walk into a rally on the street outside, organized to ask the same inexplicable question that has perplexed many for months.
Why is Colin Kaepernick still unsigned?
The NFL season begins in two weeks and the quarterback who took the San Francisco 49ers to within seven yards of winning the Super Bowl four years ago does not have a job. His absence isnt difficult to explain. His refusal to stand for the national anthem last year as a way to draw attention to racial inequality in the US has apparently made him toxic to the leagues owners who fear a backlash from white fans and corporate sponsors offended by a perceived lack of patriotism.
Proof of this comes in the words of New York Giants owner John Mara, who recently told Sports Illustrated that he had never received more emotional email from people than I did about this issue. A typical letter, he said, read: If any of your players do that, we are never coming to another Giants game.
Evidence comes too in the Baltimore Ravens attempt to crowdsource fan reaction to a potential Kaepernick signing earlier this month. Though the Ravens desperately could use a backup quarterback with Kaepernicks skills and experience, team owner Steve Bisciotti told the Baltimore Sun he wanted to do what is best for our team and balance that with what is best for our fans.
The Ravens decided that what was best for their team and fans was to sign seldom-used backup Thaddeus Lewis, furthering the belief that teams are determined to sign anyone but the free agent Kaepernick.
Will the league fear that advertisers are going to say, We will take our advertising dollars and signage in stadiums and go away, Bob Dorfman, executive-vice president of Baker Street Advertising, an agency that handles sports accounts, told the Guardian. While thats not going to happen, thats something that will open owners eyes.
But the more the owners keep Kaepernick away, the more his protest endures. A story that might well have died, since Kaepernick had promised to stand for the anthem this coming season, has instead become an even bigger issue as people keep wondering why no one will sign him. Several top African American players including Seattles Michael Bennett and Philadelphias Malcolm Jenkins have kneeled for anthems before preseason games, with support coming from white teammates like the Seahawks Justin Britt and Chris Long of the Eagles. A group of black police officers in New York tweeted a photo of themselves kneeling for Kaepernkick significant because much of his criticism has been directed at police bias against African Americans.
Then on Monday, more than a dozen Cleveland Browns players staged the largest national anthem protest yet, and were joined by white players for whats believed to be the first time, before their preseason game against the New York Giants.
As the NBA encourages star players like LeBron James to speak out on social issues, the NFLs fear of upsetting wealthy ticket buyers and corporate executives seems trapped in another era. In trying to make Kaepernick disappear, teams have made him as visible as ever.
The world has changed with racial attitudes, Geoff Pope, a former Giants cornerback who has worked to encourage athletes to become socially aware, told the Guardian. The NFL kind of looks like the old dude in the corner thats not changing, [saying] its my way or the highway.
The NFL is the worlds most lucrative sports league, with $14bn in revenue, but its foundation has been weakened by a connection scientists have made in the last decade between the repeated banging of helmets and degenerative brain disease. Many parents have been hesitant to let their children play football, potentially weakening future talent pool. Last year, the first cracks began to show in the NFLs dominance of the American market. Television ratings plunged an average of 8% last season. Many reasons have been given for the ratings drop, including a saturation of prime time games as well as a rise in the number of people dropping cable packages.
But Kaepernicks protest seemed to chase away white fans. A survey conducted by JD Power showed that 26% fewer people watched NFL games last year and, of that group, 24% claimed it was because of the anthem protest.
The NFL has long worried about losing control of America. While revenues are huge, footballs base is small mostly confined to the continental US and parts of Canada and Mexico. This is why the league has pushed hard over the last decade to establish themselves in Europe and Asia. The NFLs London games are unpopular with American fans, yet league executives are desperate to establish the game globally much like basketball, baseball and hockey.
The ratings drop has been a consistent topic over the past year, and league executives, including commissioner Roger Goodell, have appeared uncomfortable addressing it. A sustained drop in ratings could mean smaller future television deals and less money for owners who have seen values of their franchises rise from the hundreds of millions to as much as $4.2bn in the past 10 years.
There is no evidence the league is working to keep their teams from signing Kaepernick. Goodell has called clubs decision to not do so a football decision and Kaepernicks play in 2014 and 2015 on terrible 49ers teams can justify teams hesitation to sign him. Still, he was effective in 2016, throwing for 2,241 yards and 16 touchdowns with just four interceptions, causing many players to note that without the anthem protests hed at least be a backup quarterback.
If you look at his stats alone, he is better than some quarterbacks playing, Steelers defensive end Cameron Hayward told the Washington Post.
You can literally beat your wife or girlfriend and as a player that is forgivable, but if you dont stand for the national anthem youre a pariah? Pope asked.
Kaepernicks status has done anything but make people forget last years protest. In many ways, this is all Kaepernick wanted. When he first sat for the anthem before last Augusts pre-season games, he said he wanted to start a conversation about race in America. As Harry Edwards, one of Americas most respected civil activists and a consultant to the 49ers, said in the NFL Networks February documentary on Kaepernick called The Conversation: Youve got everybody from luggage handlers to waitresses in coffee shops and the president of the United States talking about (racial inequality) because of Kaepernicks decision to take a knee.
So as pre-season games began this August, players like Bennett, Jenkins and Oaklands Marshawn Lynch have been prominent in their protest.
I think looking at the atmosphere compared to last year and what has transpired the stakes are almost higher, Jenkins told reporters last Thursday, in an apparent reference to the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the rise of white supremacist groups.
For decades, football has been a sport demanding complete capitulation from players. Those who dared to defy the order of coaches or owners were dismissed. Players contracts are rarely guaranteed beyond signing bonuses and past attempts at player strikes have quickly fallen apart. The fact that some black players continue to protest and are being supported by white teammates is a change from a past where Kaepernicks exclusion might have frightened others to stay quiet.
This can be seen in recent reactions from retired Africa American stars like Ray Lewis and Michael Vick, who have both been critical of Kaepernicks approach, with Lewis going as far as saying Kaepernick should get back on the football field and let your play speak for itself. In other years such a comment would have been met with nods. This time it drew outrage.
Its so mind-boggling, Pope said. Hes so oblivious [now] to what it means to grow up African American.
It is too soon to tell if the protests will extend into the season and what impact, if any, they will have on white viewers. Kaepernicks absence wont be wiped away by a few Tom Brady touchdown throws. Each time another quarterback gets hurt or released the question will rise: what about Kaepernick?
The NFL is also very popular with black fans, and lately there have been calls for African American fans to boycott watching games and buying jerseys. For a league hungry to hold on to every fan they have, such a move could also be damaging, leaving owners to wonder if it was worth it to appease the loud few who moved to write letters saying they would no longer buy tickets if Kaepernick was on their team.