Colin Kaepernick and Symbolic Politics


Josh Knell, Contributor

Colin Kaepernick has been an NFL pariah for three years. His identity is inextricably linked to his kneeling during the National Anthem, his play merely an afterthought. Conservatives lambast the former 49ers quarterback for disrespecting the flag; liberals celebrate him for bringing light to racial inequality in America. The ultimate deciders of Kaepernick’s fate— the NFL and its 32 teams— have remained silent until recently. 

On November 12th, the NFL informed Kaepernick of a workout they were holding for him in Atlanta. The workout, in many ways, was unprecedented. The NFL has never held a league-sponsored workout for an individual player. The workout was also held on a Saturday, when all teams were preparing for upcoming games. Further adding to the strange nature of the workout was the involvement of NFL partner, entrepreneur, and rapper Jay-Z.

The apparent arbitrariness of Kaepernick’s workout led many to question the legitimacy of the NFL’s attempt to showcase the quarterback’s talent. Prior to the 12th, no team had asked Kaepernick to even throw a football for three years (Coaches Pete Carrol and John Harbaugh, however, did speak with Kapernick prior to the 2019-2020 NFL season). 

Was the NFL’s workout a real chance for Kaepernick to return to the NFL? It depends on who you ask.

The Kaepernick camp claims the workout was nothing more than a publicity stunt. They cite the presence of atypical liability waivers and the odd provision that only NFL cameras were allowed inside the facility. As an attempt to regain control of the narrative surrounding his football ability, Kaepernick then moved the workout an hour away, with members of his crew live broadcasting the event via YouTube and Twitter. In an official statement and a subsequent press conference, Kaepernick asked “for a transparent and open process,” calling on the NFL to “stop running from the truth [and to] stop running from the people.”

The NFL, on the other hand, claims that Commissioner Roger Goodell recognized the need to provide Kaepernick a path back to the league. NFL representatives have cited a recent rash of quarterback injuries as another reason for setting up the workout. In response to the Kaepernick statement, the NFL released their own, claiming that the workout  “was designed to give Colin what he consistently has said he wants—an opportunity to show his football readiness and desire to return to the NFL.” 

Regardless of its attempts to appear benevolent, the NFL is an image-obsessed league. Players are expected to play hard on Sunday and be quiet during the rest of the week. Kapernick is now forever associated with his activism, preventing him from ever fitting the typical mold of an NFL player.

The workout wasn’t necessary. Most casual fans of the NFL knew Kaepernick could still play, most teams also knew Kaepernick was a symbolic liability. If any team had signed Kaepernick following the workout, they would have likely been placed at the forefront of the intersection between politics and sports, becoming the subject of newsroom discussions and Trump tweets. 

The costs of signing the controversial backup quarterback far outweigh the benefits of giving him a spot on the 53 man roster. In the weeks following the workout, Commissioner Goodell has stated that the NFL has “moved on” from Kaepernick. While Kaepernick’s activism has continued through his criticism of US military action in the Middle East, his football career has stagnated, with no teams expressing any interest post-workout. Kaepernick, despite his above average ability, remains unsigned, because he is still a political symbol, and political symbols do not play in the NFL.