As Kaeper­nick waits, where are peers?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Kevin B. Black­i­stone

Shortly af­ter San Fran­cisco benched Colin Kaeper­nick a cou­ple of sea­sons ago, de­scrip­tions of Kaeper­nick as an aloof team­mate sur­faced. Team­mates sug­gested to some re­porters that they didn’t see him as a leader, de­spite be­ing a quar­ter­back. They strug­gled to con­nect with him.

Last sea­son, as Kaeper­nick roiled the NFL and the coun­try with a demon­stra­tive pregame act, I heard he lived up to his rep­u­ta­tion as a loner by telling some play­ers who wanted to sup­port him that he pre­ferred to do his thing on his own.

It was a year ago this week­end, the open­ing of the 2016 NFL pre­sea­son, when Kaeper­nick first re­fused to stand at at­ten­tion for the na­tional an­them. It wasn’t un­til he made his protest dur­ing the an­them more dis­tinct in sub­se­quent games — by drop­ping to a knee, rather than sit­ting on the bench — that the rest of us took note. NFL Net­work re­porter Steve Wy­che spied Kaeper­nick kneel­ing and asked the quar­ter­back what he was do­ing.

“I am not go­ing to stand up to show pride in a flag for a coun­try that op­presses black peo­ple and peo­ple of color,” Kaeper­nick told Wy­che postgame. “To me, this is big­ger than foot­ball, and it would be self­ish on my part to look the other way. There are bod­ies in the street and peo­ple get­ting paid leave and get­ting away with mur­der.”

It didn’t sound then as if Kaeper­nick in­tended for his righ­teous protest against the unchecked ex­tra­ju­di­cial killing of black men in this coun­try to be about him. But un­for­tu­nately, so it has been re­duced.

A coali­tion un­der the ban­ner “United We Stand Rally for Colin Kaeper­nick” an­nounced it will hold a rally out­side the league’s head­quar­ters in New York on Aug. 23. A Change.org pe­ti­tion was posted late last month call­ing for a boy­cott of the NFL.

The ef­forts are born out of anger against the league and, more spe­cially, its fran­chises, which col­lec­tively have barred their locker room doors to Kaeper­nick since he opted to be­come a free agent in the off­sea­son. Lesser quar­ter­backs have been given con­tracts, in­clud­ing some who were coaxed out of re­tire­ment.

But Kaeper­nick, not yet 30 and just a few sea­sons re­moved from lead­ing San Fran­cisco to the Su­per Bowl, can’t get into a train­ing camp. As I sug­gested five months ago in th­ese pages, it is not sur­pris­ing that in a league that has drenched it­self in pa­tri­otic and mil­i­taris­tic im­agery and is run by own­ers who are mostly sup­port­ive of con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics, its stake­hold­ers find Kaeper­nick’s stri­dency re­pug­nant.

How­ever, it made me won­der whether Kaeper­nick’s strat­egy to be a soloist rather than a band leader al­lowed his cause to get ob­fus­cated. In­deed, we are no longer talk­ing about the num­ber of peo­ple felled by po­lice, which is greater this year than at the same time last year when Kaeper­nick started his protest. And black men are still roughly 21/2 times more likely to be those vic­tims than white Amer­i­cans.

With­out ques­tion, we the pub­lic, NFL fans and Kaeper­nick’s brethren should be con­cerned about Kaeper­nick’s in­abil­ity to get a fair shake from a league that, since it re­scinded its racial seg­re­ga­tion agree­ment af­ter World War II, touts its play­ing field as one ruled by mer­i­toc­racy. Who among us would be com­fort­able work­ing for an em­ployer who would shun you be­cause you voiced an op­pos­ing po­lit­i­cal opin­ion? Fed­eral law of­fers no pro­tec­tion from em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion based on pol­i­tics, but states may pro­vide such pro­tec­tion and many have done so, in­clud­ing some in which NFL teams re­side.

It would seem an easy man­tle for the NFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion to pick up. But the union’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, DeMau­rice Smith, told me dur­ing a visit to his of­fice this past week that the 32 player rep­re­sen­ta­tives around the league haven’t called his of­fice en masse de­mand­ing a griev­ance be filed or some other ac­tion taken on Kaeper­nick’s be­half as some in the pub­lic are de­mand­ing.

Smith said he hasn’t been in­formed that his mem­ber­ship, so will­ing to wear rib­bons and patches ap­proved by the league to re­mem­ber re­cently de­ceased NFL icons or team­mates, wants to wear black arm and an­kle bands to in­di­cate their dis­plea­sure with the league’s stance against Kaeper­nick. In­stead, Smith said, his of­fice is pro­ceed­ing on Kaeper­nick’s be­half as the quar­ter­back and his agents have pre­ferred: alone. Truth is, other NFL play­ers are tac­itly sup­port­ing the league’s lock­out of Kaeper­nick by do­ing noth­ing.

A num­ber of ob­servers have jux­ta­posed the po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere of the NBA with that of the NFL, as the NFL’s cold shoul­der to Kaeper­nick has be­come more ev­i­dent since train­ing camps opened this sum­mer. The NBA, it has been ar­gued, was more pro­gres­sive and likely to em­brace a Kaeper­nick in its midst. Look at the ouster of owner Don­ald Ster­ling, peo­ple pointed out. Look at the vis­ual protest of Trayvon Mar­tin’s mur­der led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

But it isn’t just the leagues that are dif­fer­ent; it is the play­ers. The NBA protests were col­lec­tive ef­forts, not in­di­vid­ual. James’s voice was not alone. When it came to Ster­ling, the big­oted long­time owner of the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers, James’s words were echoed around the league. All of the Clip­pers, not just one, dumped their team jer­seys in the mid­dle of the court in a demon­stra­tion that they did not ap­pre­ci­ate play­ing for some­one with Ster­ling’s views about black men.

I re­mem­ber be­ing in the au­di­ence in col­lege when civil rights icon Kwame Ture (for­merly known as Stokely Carmichael) ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion from the black stu­dent group to speak. He asked us, quite an­grily, whether we were or­ga­nized. He im­plored us to act in con­cert, some­thing his­to­rian Pe­niel Joseph un­der­scores with rich de­tail in his 2016 bi­og­ra­phy, “Stokely: A Life,” re­call­ing Carmichael build­ing an in­de­pen­dent black po­lit­i­cal party in ru­ral Lown­des County, Ala., and help­ing to cre­ate the Free­dom Schools in Mis­sis­sippi and the Mis­sis­sippi Free­dom Demo­cratic Party.

Kaeper­nick may have sat and kneeled in his protest mostly alone. But his cause, which we so rarely talk about th­ese days, and his de­sire to work could use his brethren’s sup­port now. Kevin B. Black­i­stone, ESPN pan­elist and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Philip Mer­rill Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land, writes sports com­men­tary for The Post.

JEF­FREY T. BARNES/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Un­signed NFL quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick is in ex­ile in much the same man­ner in which he staged his protest: alone.

MAR­CIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Colin Kaeper­nick is un­signed and has re­ceived lit­tle peer sup­port, which shows how so­cial ad­vo­cacy is viewed dif­fer­ently in the NFL.

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