This article was originally published by the Brown Daily Herald and can be found here.
Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality against the black community became iconic when he knelt during the national anthem before kickoffs in 2016. He became a symbol of bravery for some and disrespect for others. Just two months ago, he and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid settled a collusion case against the National Football League, which they alleged had purposely blackballed them for their political action.
As much as I love Kaepernick, the fact that he resolved the pending grievance case with a confidentiality agreement gives me zero confidence in him or the league in addressing these matters. I desire a greater level of closure than a buyout. Kaepernick’s settlement gives the NFL a pass on how they handle protesting players, and enables them to continue this process in the future. As a basketball player who believes in social justice, I am flabbergasted by what this all could mean.
Kaepernick’s settlement opens the doors for so many questions: What was settled? No, seriously. I know this may seem like a rhetorical question, but just because the grievance case itself has concluded does not mean that the matter at hand is resolved. The initial issue was Kaepernick protesting, which he did not stop doing until he was permanently out of a uniform. So, his buyout therefore becomes problematic for a few reasons.
There is no established protocol for the next NFL player who wants to kneel or demonstrate in his own manner; he could do so during the upcoming season or 20 years down the line. The point is, however, that the succeeding player who protests — especially if he is black and the cause he is drawing attention to predominantly impacts the black community — will eventually be out of a job, according to the Kaepernick Process.
While political activism in sports is often responsive to national discourse, after what happened to Kaepernick, athletes may have little incentive to follow his lead. And this hesitancy is a commonly held position: Folks are glad that Kaepernick sacrificed his career for them, but they wouldn’t have acted similarly because many simply don’t want the sideshow or the outcasting that follows such a visible stance.
Some experts agree. Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Hilary Levey Friedman, who is teaching EDUC 0860: “Sports in American Society” this semester, told me that “in his settlement, Kaepernick did what was best for himself, and he took a political stand that hurt himself. Until another athlete takes such a public stand it will be difficult to know whether or not the settlement helped or hurt other athletes.”
In a conversation with three-year member of the football team Caleb Clarke ’20, he revealed that the team is always in the locker room when the anthem is played: he has never been on the field for a rendition of the nation’s song.
But this does not mean that Clarke does not believe in Kaepernick, nor that athletes should be hesitant to use their platform to advance issues of social justice. It’s actually just the opposite — Clarke plans to make a career out of it. His dream job is to run community service-based initiatives for professional leagues, such as NBA Cares. “The way I see sports, personally, is using it as a platform to do good,” he told me. “It unifies all different demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
But like many athletes throughout the nation, Clarke worries about the potential ramifications of protesting. Even at Brown, he has feared possible condemnation from coaches and being kicked off the team “in the most gentle and politically correct way as possible, like ‘Hey… stop.’” Herein lies Kaepernick’s impact and his settlement’s shortcomings: There is now an entire generation of athletes using him as the standard blueprint, while coaches can reliably use the NFL’s rhetoric in response. Regardless, Clarke still believes in advocating through visible sports platforms: “You’re only on the field for two hours a day. You’re still a person. You have the rest of your life to be a person.”
Yet, the NFL simply does not share this sentiment. There is an operational framework for how to approach athletes that publicly protest for social justice ideals. A buyout to Kaepernick symbolizes that there is always a dollar amount high enough to erase “problems,” which, in the eyes of the NFL, is what Kaepernick represented: a problem. Paying him off, in a way, communicates that each player has a sticker price.
Perhaps more importantly, however, a confidential payoff means that discussions, subpoenaed records and the entire case that Kaepernick and his lawyer mounted against the football giant will not be released to the public. The league can keep reiterating its tired story, in which no collusion took place and Kaepernick lacked substantiating evidence. Apparently, however, he had enough evidence to encourage a hefty settlement.
On the other hand, all of this entanglement is why the long-held debate of separating politics and sports continues to be so controversial. It’s safe to say that sports and politics do, in fact, go hand in hand. The proof is in the pudding. Jackie Robinson desegregating Major League Baseball was historical not because of his athletic ability, but because of the broken color barrier formally used to perpetuate racist propaganda — race is in the very fabric of sports thanks to earlier league commissioners who insisted on keeping things as white as possible.
And now that the color palette has turned — today, the MLB is increasingly Hispanic and black — all of a sudden sports and politics are at completely opposite ends of the totem pole. Oh please, stop it. Giving Kaepernick hush money is a failure to acknowledge the history of sports and the ways in which it is formed by race.
Nevertheless, athletes and myself — who are personally and politically weary and aware of the violence against people of color — continue to be discombobulated with what will historically be known as the Kaepernick Process. The future of our ability to express and advance noteworthy causes — particularly in a time of political unrest — in the face of athletic powerhouses is at stake. And no amount of money is worth that.