In pop culture years, 2012 was ages ago. But try to remember. That was the year quarterback Alex Smith suffered a concussion in the first half of the Niners game against the Rams in Week 10, and a backup QB named Colin Kaepernick had to fill in. The game ended in a tie, the NFL's first in four years. The next week Kaepernick started, and led the team to victory. And even after Smith was declared healthy, Kaepernick continued to start—and to win. A "quarterback controversy" brewed, but coach Harbaugh went with the guy "with the hot hand," as they say.
With that, a star was born. A second-year, backup QB led the Niners all the way to Super Bowl XLVII, and even though the Ravens came out on top, all people could talk about was Kap. His spread in the ESPN Body Issue made women swoon all around the nation. He signed endorsement deals with Jaguar, Nike, Beats, and Electronic Arts. Feature stories were written about his tattoos, his pet tortoise named Sammy, his being a biracial kid adopted by white parents.
You remember how he would kiss his biceps after scoring a touchdown? "Kaepernicking," we called it. "Tebowing" was the thing until Kap became a bigger story, and then suddenly Kaepernicking got so popular that he filed to trademark the term. You probably Kaepernicked back then, just a few years ago. Ah, the glory days.
Because in the NFL, it is OK:
- for an athlete to be accused of sexual assault twice and keep working.
- for an athlete to knock his fiancée out cold in an elevator and keep working.
- for an athlete beconvicted of assault, get signed to America's Team, and keep working.
- for an athlete to abuse his wife for years and keep working.
- for an athlete to kill someone in a DUI and keep working.
- for an athlete to serve prison time for financing a dogfighting operation and keep working.
- to name an entire team a racial slur.
- to spy on other teams and deflate balls in championship games.
But in the NFL, it is not OK:
- for players to advocate for same-sex marriage rights.
- for a player to engage in silent protest, as Kaepernick has learned.
In the fall of 2015, Kaepernick's Instagram went from glossy pics of him living the high life—hobnobbing it at GQ parties, posing with sports cars—to political memes and controversial moments in black history. Quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X began to appear often. If you followed @kaepernick7 for any length of time, you would already know he was thinking deeply about civil rights and social justice. You would know he found parallels between the struggles of those leaders and the issues people of color still face. But it would be a year before he would make the fateful decision that (potentially) ended his career.
I think that after a while—after Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Terrence Crutcher, the list goes on— Kaepernick felt moved to go beyond social media and actually do something. He weighed his options, and his convictions were heavier than the millions he stood to lose. This is a man who managed to keep a 4.0 GPA while earning All-State nominations in three sports; that is to say, a very intelligent and aware individual. He knew he was placing himself at risk, because this is a country that historically has valued black production, so long as it is detached from black humanity. It's why so-called fans expect players to just shut their mouths and play the game, as though signing a contract reduces them from people to chattel, belonging to teams and armchair analysts alike.
Yet he protested anyway.
Kaepernick was fully aware that history is not on the side of athletes who take a stand. When Muhammad Ali, at the height of his career, said he was a "conscientious objector" and refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, he was arrested, his title was immediately stripped, and his boxing license was revoked. When NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand during the National Anthem on the grounds of his religion, he was shuffled out of the league, losing out on millions and enduring death threats. His home was burned to the ground. After Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the Black Power salute on the podium in the 1968 Olympics, they were expelled from the Games. You have to imagine Kaepernick took all this into account. Yet, when he was asked why he did not stand during the National Anthem, he did not tiptoe, like Tom Brady did when asked about the Make America Great Again paraphernalia he intentionally placed in his locker. Kaepernick, on the other hand, gave a simple and direct answer:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.
So don't think for one second Kaepernick is waiting for the phone to ring. He is not spending free agency wondering why all the teams in need of a QB haven't dialed him up. That's because he is busy doing what he can to offer solutions to real-world problems, work the government has failed to do. He helped raise awareness of the famine in Somalia, and assisted efforts to charter a plane to deliver tons of food and water. He created a Know Your Rights camp, to inform citizens how to handle interactions with police. He made a Million Dollar Pledge, in which he promised to donate $1 million plus all the proceeds from his 2016 jersey sales to organizations working in oppressed communities. His goal is to donate $100,000 for 10 months, and in January the funds went to nonprofits that focus on climate change, legal advocacy for reproductive rights, human rights for immigrants and refugees, and programs for veterans transitioning to civilian life. If humanitarian work is a distraction, it's one any team should be happy to have.
“I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed," Kaepernick said when the news first broke. "If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right."
In pop culture years, 2012 was ages ago. Long enough to forget about Kaepernick's pet tortoise, or the Bible verses he has tattooed on his arms. Long enough to go from golden boy to pariah. And maybe, just maybe, long enough for the term Kaepernicking to become a synonym for doing the right thing, despite the cost.