It’s been a couple of weeks since NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick entered the free agency market and, as of today, he remains gainfully unemployed. Despite his long running battle with the league over his demonstrations of protest before kickoff time, refusing to stand respectfully for the National Anthem, it had been widely assumed that he might land a job somewhere. So what gives? At the Washington Post, Kevin B. Blackistone assures us that the league has secretly decided to “blackball” Kaepernick because of his bold stand in support of social justice or something.
Truth is, Kaepernick’s numbers have nothing to do with what entering Thursday became his second week of unemployment in the league. What has everything to do with his predicament is optics, the same one that ultimately derailed [Craig] Hodges.
Call it audaciousness.
It wasn’t just that Kaepernick last season dramatically protested the extrajudicial killings of mostly unarmed black men in this country by police who rarely get charged for their actions, let alone prosecuted or convicted. It was that he chose the anthem as his platform. By kneeling during its rendition, he appeared to mar the package of patriotism the NFL put together over the last half century that helped it overtake baseball as America’s sporting pastime.
Blackistone begins his column by comparing Kaepernick to NBA All-Star Craig Hodges, who once famously wore some African themed attire to the White House and gave a letter to then President Bush calling for more assistance to people of color. But let me bring up another famous (or infamous) NFL figure for you. Does anyone remember Plaxico Burress? While playing for the Giants (and even after) he racked up a number of collisions with the law over failure to pay taxes and some, shall we say… creative interpretations of personal medication regimens. But all of that paled in comparison to the time he literally shot himself in the thigh at a bar with a handgun for which he had no valid permit to carry in the city. The Giants eventually dismissed him, but he wound up with a starting spot with… the Jets. (For we Jets fans that was no surprise. It was just another day at the front office for us.)
But why did Burress have a job at all? Because even though he was every bit as much of a walking public relations disaster as Kaepernick, he was also one of the hottest receivers in the NFL at the time. The league is simply too competitive to leave that sort of talent out on the street if it can be avoided. Conversely, you can be the most clean cut, law abiding do gooder imaginable, but if you stink up the place when it’s game time you’ll be out of a job. Despite having come within inches of perforating his own tender bits with a hot lead injection, Burress was at the top of his game.
Colin Kaepernick falls somewhere in between. As quarterbacks go, his more recent performance was somewhere between dismal and mediocre. He had a less than 60% completion rate and was in the bottom third of the league for yards per pass. His passer rating was easily thirty points below the guys who made it to the final dance. But even for all that, he wasn’t that bad. Even the bottom quarter of ranked NFL passers are still light years ahead of the hundreds of hopefuls coming out of college every year. So at least one part of Blackistone’s theory is true. His antics definitely affected the outcome, but that’s because we’re talking about a sliding scale here. Allow me to offer a quick rule of thumb when it comes to profession sports as perceived by one of the fans:
The amount of embarrassment your team is willing to put up with is directly proportional to your measured value in terms of how likely you are to get them into the Superbowl.
In those terms, Kaepernick was okay, but not stellar enough for anyone (so far) to take on all that public relations baggage in exchange for what he offers on the field. Maybe somebody will be desperate enough for this condition to change in the coming weeks. (Note to the Jets… please don’t do this to us again.) Perhaps nobody will. But the NFL is a business just as much as it’s a national fixation. Kaepernick could have gotten away with protesting a lot more with a shiny new conference championship ring on his finger, believe me.