One by one Sunday, statements of support and unity rolled out from NFL owners, head coaches and players. Knees were taken, arms were locked, and locker rooms and tunnels became national anthem waiting areas. Thanks to the hot-winded political bluster of President Donald Trump, a space of activism previously filled by several dozen NFL voices or protests multiplied significantly.
But through it all, one thing hasn’t changed: Colin Kaepernick – Trump’s original “son of a bitch” – is still fired. And it’s worth wondering if the league’s overt embrace of unity and awareness might reverse that.
As much as the NFL would like to deny it, the reality is Trump’s notion of firing a kneeling player wasn’t an original suggestion. Maybe that’s why he felt so emboldened to use it as a political pinwheel considering he saw NFL owners do it. Long before Trump’s bombastic statements about protesting players this past week, the league’s franchises found 32 reasons to shut out Kaepernick. If kneeling for the national anthem is the anti-American virus that Trump paints it, the NFL eliminated patient zero months ago. And the president didn’t even have to campaign for it.
But if the statements and acts of ownership support across the NFL are to be believed, at least one thing is different now: Colin Kaepernick the activist shouldn’t seem like such a big distraction anymore. He’s just one of hundreds of voices now. So much so that a majority of the activism happening inside the NFL has moved beyond him.
In August, when a group of current and former NFL players sent commissioner Roger Goodell a memo asking for the league’s support in efforts to establish criminal justice reform across America, Kaepernick’s name wasn’t on it. And according to sources who spoke to Yahoo Sports about the memo, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback wasn’t even a part of the conversation.
That’s what makes all of this so interesting in the Kaepernick dynamic. While he’s often cited as the source who began the “kneel” movement in the NFL, the activism sweeping across the league has grown without his help. He’s not an afterthought, mind you. But this has moved into every NFL franchise and is transcending boundaries. Every franchise is being touched by it in some shape or form. And with owners supposedly climbing aboard and offering support, it’s hard to frame Kaepernick’s own efforts as a distraction anymore.
If anything, the league appears to be finally accepting that this isn’t just some fad. It’s not just some vague speech made by a handful of athletes at an award show or one guy using his social media accounts as a beacon for activism. It’s a full-blown NFL movement that is getting stronger. Kaepernick was the spark. Guys like Michael Bennett and Malcolm Jenkins and others fanned the flames. And right about the time the league office was taking notice, Trump poured on the gasoline with cutting condemnation in a speech to his base in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday.
In the process, the president’s vitriol helped accomplish the one thing that had never been done before meaningfully: It convinced (or forced) a large contingent of NFL owners to become some form of partners in an effort that they only ambiguously supported before. It had them standing on the sideline arm-in-arm with players or casting a disparaging glance upon the same president some had just endorsed with million-dollar donations.
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan called it a “privilege” and an “honor” to stand in unity with his players. Detroit Lions owner Martha Ford did it and thanked players for helping the league to be a “unifying force in our country.”
They weren’t alone, either. At least 23 franchises released some form of statement either supporting players, condemning Trump or some mixture of both. Time will tell if the gestures or words were legitimate or a form of lip service and public relations.
Either way, what happened was significant because it publicly made the owners a part of the same equation some were trying to avoid by shunning Kaepernick. We’re talking about a wide swath of players who are lobbying for the same platforms, sharing some of the same ideas, and espousing some of the same values and criticisms that made Kaepernick such an unemployable lightning rod.
And now? Getting any owners to take a closer look at an agenda that closely mirrors Kaepernick’s can be meaningful for the quarterback’s potential employment. Especially when you consider that in places like Jacksonville, Miami, Baltimore and Los Angeles (Chargers), the owners all privately expressed their opinions to their general managers during Kaepernick deliberations this offseason. Had they been closer to this movement six months ago, it’s fair to wonder whether Kaepernick might be on a roster right now.
But owners weren’t in this spot six months ago. And Kaepernick’s not on a roster. He remains fired, still banished to the same football purgatory that existed before this weekend happened. But some things may be changing. Some owners might be listening. And some opportunities could arise out of the conversations that bridge unity and understanding.
We’ve been handed statements suggesting NFL owners are vocally closer to the activism of their players. But there is a space between vocal support and applied acceptance. Colin Kapernick is still trapped in that space.
Still fired by 32 NFL franchises. Still paying a price. And still carrying the same message that is now supposedly embraced at the highest levels of this league. As much as some things might have changed this weekend, that hasn’t.