We’re so far past Colin Kaepernick by now. It started a little more than a year ago as a simple, elegant protest against racial injustice—so elegant that nobody even noticed it for three weeks. But thanks almost entirely to factors outside of his control, Kaepernick’s silent demonstration has morphed into unceasing “debates” about the sanctity of the flag-with-a-capital-F, respecting the military, and other matters divorced from the quarterback’s message. This was not a coincidence.
Another entrant in this summer’s seemingly endless series of disingenuous talking points was whether Kaepernick was still good enough to play in the NFL. Today, he remains the most famous unemployed person in America. No team is willing to sign him, despite signing much, much worse quarterbacks instead. One of football analysts’ chief criticisms of Kaepernick is that his skillset is specific to certain types of offenses. They argue Kaepernick is only effective when playing in mobile, athletic systems requiring quarterbacks to make simple decisions (a criticism, in itself, tinged with racial stereotypes).
But just last week, the Tennessee Titans, a team that runs such a system, signed Brandon Weeden (total career rush yards: 201) to back up Matt Cassel—himself an inferior quarterback in every way to Kaepernick—who is taking over for the injured Marcus Mariota. This effectively shut down what remained of the debate over Kaepernick’s skillset as the catalyst for his unemployment. The idea of the NFL as a meritocracy, and Kaepernick’s unemployment being nothing more than a product of that ruthlessness, was summarily silenced. Even the most ardent Kaepernick critic couldn’t justify the Weeden signing. Oh, by the way, on Sunday, the Titans lost to the Dolphins—who also passed over signing Kaepernick to coax the eternally apathetic Jay Cutler out of retirement—by the score of 16-10. The two starting quarterbacks combined for a limp 233 passing yards.
For about 50 minutes on Sunday, it seemed Kaepernick would finally seize back the narrative. CBS reported Kaepernick’s agent has been reaching out to all 32 teams on a regular basis—including the Titans, of course—offering to work out for any team privately to prove he is still the quarterback that took the Niners to the Super Bowl. Apparently, no teams have taken him up on the offer, choosing to sign the likes of Weeden instead.
If a team did sign Kaepernick tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the symbolic triumph some of his supporters expect it to be.
But, in a microcosm of Kaepernick’s entire project, this news was immediately overshadowed by Vice President Mike Pence’s $250,000 stunt of showing up to the Colts game, where he knew their opponent and Kaepernick’s former team, the 49ers,would kneel. Pence stormed out, releasing a statement about The Flag, The Troops, and the National Anthem.
Given all of these recent events, what are teams even accomplishing by refusing to sign Kaepernick? At first, it was mostly a fine example of The Streisand Effect; the more they tried to avoid the “distraction,” the more of a distraction it became. Now, after the Vice President turned a football game into a literal publicity stunt at the President’s supposed direction, it’s hard to imagine what more of a distraction the NFL could possibly hope to avoid.
If a team did sign Kaepernick tomorrow, it would be good for him, obviously, and good in a way for the racial justice movement, since Kaepernick has pledged to donate more of his earnings to various charities. But it wouldn’t be the symbolic triumph some of his supporters expect it to be. It wouldn’t signal any semblance of a victory for his protests or a widespread acceptance of his message. Instead, it would signal the exact opposite: that the team had finally considered his message sufficiently neutered, that the vagaries of Unity and Togetherness had thoroughly replaced his calls for justice.
In fact, given the NFL’s attempt to seize his message and dilute it into meaninglessness, those who truly support Kaepernick and his efforts to end racial injustice might hope the NFL doesn’t feel comfortable enough to welcome him back any time soon. Instead, Kaepernick’s signing would mean that the NFL has accomplished its goal of thoroughly divorcing the man from his message. We’re so far past the point where a single team could sign him to save the league’s face. We’re even further past the point where anyone hasn’t made up their minds already on the whole mess. Kaepernick resuming NFL play would, in all likelihood, signal the end, not the beginning.