If Colin Kaepernick is for Black lives, he won’t go back to the NFL


Too often, in our hasty gestures of doling out ally and wokeness credits, we fail to turn a critical lens to the ways that performative activism rarely metes out actual social change. And while Colin Kaepernick’s recent activist work seems to be more than performance, recent protests on his behalf and his continued fight to get back into the NFL raise important questions about how we approach Black liberation both in theory and in praxis.

The ex-quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers became an unexpected (and maybe even unintended) activist icon last August when he refused to stand for the National Anthem. His concerns stemmed mainly from the oppression of Black people and other people of color in the United States, like Philando Castile who was killed by St. Anthony, Minnesota Police a month earlier. Kaepernick concluded his protest in March believing that he had sparked national discussion about inequality.

Since opting out of his contract, Kaepernick has struggled to secure a spot on a new team. But that hasn’t kept the football star from trying.

In an interview with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, The Nation‘s sports correspondent Dave Zirin said,

What Colin Kaepernick is saying and what the people very close to him are saying is that all he wants is an invitation to a training camp, which he has not gotten, which actually goes against – some other anonymous reports came out that are unconfirmed – that he was invited to several training camps and just did not go because he did not think he could start. I can confirm that that’s actually not true.

Now, the question that remains is whether or not what we’re looking at is the sort of thing that NFL teams, NFL owners – they tend to be a very conservative lot. They’re just sort of deciding individually, with a degree of groupthink, that they won’t sign him or, as one former NFL player said, that he had information that the NFL had contacted teams and told them not to sign Kaepernick, particularly the Seattle Seahawks. And if that’s the case, what we’re talking about is collusion.

Essentially, Kaepernick is working diligently to gain the approval of and access to the fans, team owners, and NFL bureaucrats who have essentially blacklisted him for speaking on behalf of Black people.

This is the same organization and the same fans, team owners, and NFL bureaucrats who supported ex-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice when video evidence emerged of him knocking unconscious and then dragging his then-fiance Janay Rice in a parking structure. These fans, team owners, and NFL bureaucrats couldn’t care less about issues like domestic violence though. It took the league a year to suspend Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekial Elliot after his ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson accused him of physically assaulting her five times in a six-day stretch in July 2016. One whole year. And, many hailed this as a victory given the extremely low to nonexistent rate of consequence for men who abuse their domestic partners in the NFL.

This is the same organization that is directly linked to the high prevalence of C.T.E., a degenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head. C.T.E. was found in the brain of Junior Seau, a 20 year pro-baller who died of suicide. He was only 43. And, with 70% of the NFL being comprised of Black men, it is nearly impossible to untether this issue from its anti-Black moorings.

To drive the point home: this is the same organization that has benefited from and subsists on the degradation and exploitation of Black bodies (and I use that term intentionally).

To give a historical referent, Dr. Saidiya Hartman teaches us about the “fungibility of the slave” in her book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. She says,

The relation between pleasure and the possession of slave property, in both the figurative and literal senses, can be explained in part by the fungibility of the slave – that is, the joy made possible by virtue of the replaceability and interchangeability endemic to the commodity – and by the extensive capacities of property – that is, the augmentation of the master subject through his embodiment in external objects and persons. Put differently, the fungibility of the commodity makes the captive body an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others feelings, ideas, desires, and values; and, as property, the dispossessed body of the enslaved is the surrogate for the master’s body since it guarantees his disembodied universality and acts as the sign of his power and dominion.

This is an important intervention in a modern sense. The reason why the NFL can hire players with worse stats than Kaepernick to fill their rosters is because players (especially Black ones) are fungible to systems of racial capital. This means, large corporations like the NFL – which exist primarily to sell pleasure to white people – see Black men as easily replaceable bodies. Bodies that are non-subjective, empty vessels to be used up, re-branded, traded, and co-opted by their white owners. This is why these corporations cover their Black commodity players with logos, put them in commercials, plaster their faces on billboards, and gently package their careers toward success until they are either physically depleted or injured beyond repair.

Even the culture around the NFL, as seen in the Fantasy Football craze where players are traded like property by the common fan, induces a mindless, investmentless pleasure in the commodification of athletes’ bodies. This pleasure, our pastime, and the violence we condone because of them are all wrapped up together.

Yes, the analogy between slavery and the NFL has long been made. And, while I do not intend to re-make that point again, I suggest that their similarities continue to re-emerge because of their rootedness in racial capitalism. The fact is: all capitalism (especially the neoliberal version) in and of itself is anti-Black. And, the NFL is the quintessential capitalistic enterprise. So, how does one reconcile Kaepernick’s continued desire to remain complicit in that very system?

It’s just not possible.

Did Kaepernick think that he was a magical negro who would be protected from the anti-Black frameworks and actions of the NFL after challenging them? Did he overestimate the goodness of whiteness, convincing himself that all they really needed was a good, upstanding (biracial) Black man like himself to lead us into liberation? In either case, the answer is anti-Black.

Perhaps Kaepernick’s proximity to whiteness (having white adoptive parents and a white birth mother) gives him expectations of white dominated systems that many darker-skinned, working class and poor Black people do not have. Perhaps he still sees whiteness as redeemable, fundamentally pure or a viable actor in Black liberation. Many Black people simply do not agree, myself included.

So, I won’t be joining others who are protesting Kaepernick being shut out of an anti-Black system that perpetuates the eradication of my people. I also won’t be begging any teams to sign him. I don’t understand the logic of him being there in the first place.

Kaepernick is a well-to-do, financially stable, able-bodied young man who never has to work again in his life is he so chooses. He can use his name, his brand, his organizations, and his fan-base to enact real, substantive change beyond sparked conversations. He is safe. Meanwhile there are young, poor, disabled, Black, Brown, queer, trans and GNC activists dying everyday, some for causes yet unknown, whose names and stories will never see the light of day. There are young activists who face food and housing insecurity but continue fighting for Black lives in spite of.

Now that Kaepernick has been cast out of the presence of his white team owners and misogynistic team members, he has the freedom to engage in politics and social action on his own terms. He has the resources many young Black activists do not and wish they did. He should be using those resources, skill sets, and networks in the sole pursuit of liberating Black people instead of asking the NFL for permission to make them money again.

If he is truly about Black liberation, truly, that’s all he would be doing right now. Hopefully, more of us will be watching to hold him accountable.


Photo via Twitter

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.