NFL’s Gesture Rings Hollow

After the protests over systematic racism that rocked the NFL this year, the multi-billion business has finally decided to take some steps to show it shares the protesting players’ concerns. On Thursday, it came out that the NFL has agreed to pledge $89 million spread out over the next seven years to charities that address criminal justice reforms. That’s a start. It really is. It’s a nice start, but it’s not enough. Period.

As long as Colin Kaepernick is effectively banned from the NFL for protesting injustice and police brutality in America, no player should agree to any deal that weakens their power to not only bring him back, but ensure that what has happened to him never happens to another player again.

When Kaepernick began using his position and platform as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers to bring attention to the brutal police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the summer of 2016, such a pledge from the NFL seemed as likely as Donald Trump pledging support to undocumented immigrants. A lot has happened since Kaepernick first took a seat, then a knee, during the National Anthem — mainly, ratings have dropped and the league has been mired in non-stop battles over politics, with criticisms from both the left and right.

Since Kaepernick first took a knee, a staggering 1,500 people have been killed by American police. This year is on pace to be worse than last year. The problem that Kaepernick wanted to shed a light on is not getting better in any shape, form, or fashion. So yes, it’s good news that the NFL is committed to putting some money behind addressing this problem, but accepting such an offer from the league right now would be a significant mistake.

It appears, though, to be a mistake that Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles is prepared to make. Jenkins, who is a very serious advocate for criminal justice reform, and has worked tirelessly to be a leader the issue over the past year, announced that in light of the NFL making its pledge, he is going to be ending his on-field protest. That’s his prerogative, of course, but in doing so Jenkins has made it look like the NFL bought his compliance. Not only that, but Jenkins, who was one of the central leaders of a coalition of protesting players, appears to have forgotten that it was Kaepernick’s initial protest and bravery that brought them all to this point in the first place.

Sports Illustrated just awarded Colin Kaepernick with its Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. GQ named him their Citizen of the Year. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Last December the San Francisco 49ers gave Colin Kaepernick its most prestigious award for his contributions on and off the field.

And yet, he is a football player in the prime of his life without a team. Nobody will touch him with a ten foot pole. In a season that has seen over 100 quarterbacks signed to NFL rosters, Kaepernick never even received a chance to try out for a team. He never received an offer to serve as a backup. He never even received a chance to be a third string quarterback playing for the league minimum. I know — I asked him this myself.

Before the start of this season, it was a frequent refrain of Kaepernick’s critics that he had not received an offer yet because he simply wasn’t good enough. With every passing week of games, that excuse has basically disappeared. Superstar quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers came out and publicly said he should be on a roster. Starting quarterbacks across the league are dropping like flies due to injuries and, yet, Kaepernick still didn’t get a shot. Instead, men were brought out of retirement, or even given their very first chance to throw a football on a pro team, before he was given an opportunity. Even when teams were losing and seemed desperate for a new quarterback, Kaepernick continued to be shut out — and it wasn’t just because of his play on the field.

Colin Kaepernick, it is now almost universally agreed, has been effectively shut out of the NFL because of his stance against injustice in America. The man has impeccable character. He’s as generous with his time and money as any athlete in the league. He has never once been in trouble a day in his life. He’s quiet. He’s in a committed relationship. So nobody can say it’s any off the field antics that has kept him out of the league.

It’s his courage and bravery that has him banned from the NFL.

And as long as Kaepernick is banned for standing up against injustice in America, no amount of hush money should cause players who share his passion for this issue to stop protesting.

He may be receiving awards all over the place for the sacrifice that he has made, but this much I know: The man wants to play in the NFL. He works out six days a week and is in the best shape of his life. His sacrifice should not be a foregone conclusion. Will this ban from the NFL be permanent? Are we truly in a place where he is never going to be allowed to play in the NFL again?

If so, the NFL should keep that money. The league cannot, in truth and sincerity, say it cares about criminal justice reform while ruining a man’s career for showing us all just how much he cares about it.

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