Opinion | Colin Kaepernick was right about pretty much everything (2023)

If anyone has earned the right to condemn the NFL’s mistreatment of Black players, it’s Colin Kaepernick. And he’s no longer mincing words. In “Colin in Black and White,” a Netflix miniseries he co-produced with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Kaepernick provocatively likens the NFL draft to slavery.

Honored around the world for his social activism, the former quarterback is now telling his story his way.

Since the end of the 2016-17 season, the NFL has seemingly blackballed the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback for exercising his constitutional right to take a knee during the national anthem and protest police brutality and systemic racism. His peaceful protest was distorted by former President Donald Trump and Commissioner Roger Goodell and enabled by the NFL’s rich, powerful and (mostly) white team owners.

Kaepernick, 34, may never play another NFL game. But he seems at peace with that. Honored around the world for his social activism, the former quarterback is now telling his story his way.

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Don’t get it twisted. Kaepernick’s slavery comments were meant figuratively. He knows that players choose to work in the NFL while enslaved people had no such choice. But he also clearly believes Black players should know what they’re getting themselves into. He sees the league as an institution that appears to value subservience and punish independent thought.

Opinion | Colin Kaepernick was right about pretty much everything (1)

Kaepernick, biracial and adopted at 5 months old by a white couple in Milwaukee, wasn’t willing to make such a compromise.

In a scene from the miniseries, Kaepernick is dressed in black, with an Afro framing his face. As he condemns the NFL draft, we see a depiction of a slave auction juxtaposed with images of white coaches examining Black bodies.

“What they don’t want you to understand is what’s being established is a power dynamic,” he says. “Before they put you on the field, teams poke, prod and examine you. Searching for any defect that might affect your performance. No boundary respected. No dignity left intact.”

In addition to the poking and prodding, the psychological testing and the strength and speed drills, the NFL draft combine is also where Black men have endured humiliation in interviews with team officials. A Miami Dolphins executive once asked star wide receiver Dez Bryant whether his mother was a prostitute.

“I got mad, really mad,” Bryant said later. “But I didn’t show it. I got lots of questions like that.”

And then there’s this question to defensive back Eli Apple: “So, do you like men?”

The NFL draft combine is also where Black men have endured humiliation in interviews with team officials.

The blackballing of Kaepernick and his former 49ers teammate Eric Reid effectively ended pregame kneeling and sent an unmistakable message that players of color have no rights that an NFL team feels bound to respect. And in that regard, each team operates somewhat like a plantation.

In his book “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” journalist William C. Rhoden cogently made the connection between well-paid Black athletes and their forced subservience to white team owners and their lack of autonomy.

“The power relationship that had been established on the plantation has not changed, even if the circumstances around it have,” Rhoden wrote.

Kaepernick’s slavery comparison expands on that argument. It exposes a 32-team league in which 70 percent of the players are Black yet there are no Black owners and only one Black president (Washington’s Jason Wright), five Black general managers (Miami’s Chris Grier, Cleveland’s Andrew Berry, Washington’s Martin Mayhew, Detroit’s Brad Holmes and Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot) and five head coaches of color (Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Miami’s Brian Flores, Houston’s David Culley, Washington’s Ron Rivera and the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh).

Opinion | Colin Kaepernick was right about pretty much everything (2)

The minimum annual salary for an NFL player is $660,000, but that figure is inflated by the huge salaries of star quarterbacks like Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady ($41 million).

The average playing career lasts only three years. The careers of running backs, who play a punishing position dominated by Blacks, average less than three years. And unlike contracts in Major League Baseball and the NBA, NFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed. A player can be terminated at any time.

Former players suffering the effects of head injuries have sued the NFL alleging that they weren’t adequately informed about the cumulative effects of helmet-to helmet hits. Hall of Famer Harry Carson, 67, a Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, says he wouldn’t have played pro football had he foreseen the neurological problems that now plague him.

Even on this issue, Blacks are affected disproportionately.



OpinionHow Jon Gruden's downfall could become Colin Kaepernick's vindication

As part of a $1 billion settlement with former players last month, the NFL agreed to end race-norming, a dubious practice built on the premise that Blacks have scored lower than whites on cognitive tests, so they should have a higher burden of proof when they file claims and receive less money if their claims are approved.

In the NFL, Black players have been treated largely as field hands. Their systemic exclusion from positions of power and authority begs serious examination.

So does the NFL’s good-ol’-boy network. Team owners donated to Republican candidates, including Trump, by a 9-to-1 ratio in 2020 races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That helps to explain the NFL’s lack of inclusiveness, as well as its exclusion of Kaepernick.

In the NFL, Black players have been treated largely as field hands. Their systemic exclusion from positions of power and authority begs serious examination.

Perhaps a serious examination will come from Congress, which has ordered the NFL to turn over 650,000 documents related to an investigation into allegations of sexual discrimination by the Washington Football Team.

Leaks from those documents led to last month’s firing of Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden for racist, misogynistic and homophobic remarks. That no other coach or executive no other coach or executive has faced similar consequences strongly suggests a cover-up.

If the truth is unearthed, Kaepernick could benefit. He and Reid accepted less than $10 million in 2019 to settle a collusion case against the NFL.

It’s no consolation to Kaepernick that after people around the world protested the deaths last year of unarmed Blacks George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, Goodell, the commissioner, told interviewer and former NFL player Emmanuel Acho, “I wish we had listened earlier, Kap, to what you were kneeling about and what you were calling attention to.”



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If Goodell is sincere, he’ll pay attention now and urge NFL owners to do the same. Kaepernick is shining a light on a league far different from the one that luxuriates in cash from networks and sports betting. Rather, it is a league that so exploits and devalues Black players that Kaepernick has found post-football success merely by exposing it.


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Cecil Harris

Cecil Harris is a veteransports journalist whose work has appeared inThe New York Times,USA Todayand othernewspapers. He is the author of four books, including "Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution," published in 2020.


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