Whichever side you take in the current Colin Kaepernick debate, you're looking at it the wrong way.
One side cries, "Kap's being blackballed!" The other side harrumphs, "It's just that he's not that good." Each side's truth is undone by its blindness toward the other's, and the Kaepernick conversation is too important to drown in the careless language of 21st century bickering.
To assert "blackball" is to discard basic facts about the marketplace. To cite "merit-based" football reasons for why Kaepernick might struggle to find work in the NFL is to ignore what makes his situation unique. Regardless of anyone's opinion or the passion with which they hold it, the NFL establishment has thrown Kaepernick and his politics into the bin labeled "distraction," and much of the league's support structure has nodded in agreement.
But we really don't stop and think enough about what some of these words mean.
Technically, if Kaepernick were being blackballed, that would mean all 32 teams had conspired to keep him out of the league -- or that the league office had somehow ordered or convinced teams to stay away from him. That's not exactly what's happening here.
One of the main factual problems with this argument is that there aren't 32 teams that need a quarterback. And there are only a half-dozen that could offer Kaepernick what he wants. Kaepernick, remember, opted out of his San Francisco 49ers contract -- a deal that included $16.5 million in non-guaranteed money this year -- because he wanted a better situation for him and his career.
Further, we know from multiple sources that Kaepernick isn't just looking for any job. Two people to whom I spoke last week say he's looking for a place that offers him a chance to compete for a starting job and a salary befitting a high-end backup quarterback or a low-end starter. Think something like $9 million to $10 million.
We know that the number of teams whose current quarterback situations would offer Kaepernick a chance to start is small. I count five, generously, and they're the Browns, Jets, Texans, Broncos and 49ers. We can rule out two right away, because the 49ers are the team he just left and the Jets are owned by Woody Johnson, a valued political friend of a U.S. president who recently and proudly claimed responsibility for Kaepernick's current state of unemployment.
The Texans are waiting for Tony Romo to be released. It may be that the Broncos are, too, but Romo can't go both places and Denver did try to work out a trade for Kaepernick last year, so keep them as possibilities. Even so, he's basically down to two teams, assuming one of those last two gets Romo. That's Kaepernick's current field of potential suitors, given what we understand to be his current expectations.
Could he take a deal like the one Geno Smith just got with the Giants, which guarantees him $300,000 for the summer and nothing -- not even a 53-man roster spot -- beyond that? Sure, but at this point that's not what he wants, and who can blame him?
The facts just don't fully support the notion -- articulated most recently by Richard Sherman -- that Kaepernick is being "blackballed." Do I believe there are teams that won't look at Kaepernick because of his political stance? Sure, and the Woody Johnson example is the most glaring. Do I believe there are 32 of them? Heck, no. Not every team needs a quarterback, and it's to Kaepernick's detriment that one or two of the teams that do are inclined against him. That's not a "blackball." It's an unfortunate collision of circumstance and prejudice in one or two specific cases.
Oh, man, is this a nasty NFL establishment code word. NFL people use it casually, without stopping to think what it means. No less dignified a league ambassador than Tony Dungy was throwing it around three years ago with regard to Michael Sam, whose crime against the establishment was being gay and open about it. Teams weren't quite sure what to do with that. The comments of some players who also weren't sure what to do with it didn't help. And when Sam didn't make it in the NFL, we heard the same kinds of things we're hearing now -- how the real problem was that he wasn't a good enough player.
Sam's situation and Kaepernick's obviously aren't the same, which is why it's alarming that the word being used about them in NFL circles is the same. "Distraction," as applied to the concept of players and coaches having to answer nonfootball questions from the media while engaged in their ultraserious football preparations, is a convenient catchall. It helps those who see the issue through shield-shaped glasses ignore what makes each situation different.
Further, it's unfair that the word only gets used to connote something negative about players, when distractions persistently abound in front offices too. Was Kaepernick's national anthem stance any more distracting to the 49ers than the decisions by 49ers owner Jed York to fire his coach in each of the past three offseasons? Is constant turnover and upheaval in key leadership positions not a greater distraction to a team than what its quarterback is doing during the national anthem?
The people who run these teams regularly create distractions that go unpunished or easily forgiven. Was it not a distraction to the Colts when owner Jim Irsay got busted for driving while intoxicated and suspended six games? Is it not a distraction to Patriots players to be asked about their feelings on their upcoming White House visit while team owner Robert Kraft hobnobs with our polarizing president? Were the Giants not subjected to distraction last fall when GM Jerry Reese ran and hid from the Josh Brown issue while his players and his first-year coach -- none of whom were responsible for signing Brown with knowledge of his violent past -- were forced daily to answer questions about the issue?
There's an obvious double standard at work, but Kaepernick has committed the dual sin of (A) creating the dreaded "distraction" while (B) not playing well enough for teams to overlook it. You fall into one of those boxes, and you run the risk of the NFL being done with you. Fall into both of them? That's a bumpy road back.
In that regard, Kaepernick is just another NFL labor-versus-management issue -- not an issue of race or politics or really even football. Unless you're Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Von Miller or one of a dozen or so indispensable superstars, you're a disposable piece in today's NFL. And the engine of NFL commerce grinds too ruthlessly and relentlessly to keep anybody up nights worrying about the inhumanity of that concept.
Which brings us to:
No, Kaepernick has not been an especially good quarterback for a few years now. No, he has not demonstrated progress as a reader of defenses or a pocket passer. There are surely merit-based reasons to pass on Kaepernick as your potential answer at quarterback, and there's been no shortage of analysis this past week about the complex headaches that would go along with changing your system around him or bringing in a backup for whom you'd have to change your system if the starter got hurt. All fair enough, but it's bullheaded to set those up as the sole reasons for the current situation.
Kaepernick makes some people squirm. He shouldn't, because he's done nothing wrong or even un-American. He has quite clearly taken a stand on behalf of citizens of this country who are poor and oppressed. He has put his money where his mouth is, actively participating in and donating to charities that stand for the same things. Just this week, after the president's proposed budget included cuts to Meals on Wheels, Kaepernick donated $50,000 to the group. This is a young man who isn't just talking about the problems but actively trying to do something about them. There are things Kaepernick is doing worth commending.
Unfortunately, he plays in a league that sells the flag and the military and the police as part of its brand. And what Kaepernick did by wearing socks with pigs dressed in police gear and refusing to stand for the national anthem is viewed by a segment of our population -- and of the NFL fan base -- as un-American, even treasonous. Never mind that the NFL just last year agreed to pay back more than $700,000 of taxpayer money it had received from the armed forces to support game-day military tributes. The symbolism of Kaepernick's peaceful protest conflicts with what the NFL and its fans want to believe about the game's connection to "patriotism." It makes people uncomfortable.
Look, it's only been two weeks since free agency started. It's still nearly five weeks until the draft, and Kaepernick isn't the only qualified veteran quarterback still out there. It's too early to draw any real conclusions about why he's out of work, because a lot of guys are still out of work who won't be come September.
But it's not too early to find a better way to talk about Kaepernick -- to examine what we think, say and believe and the reasons why we think, say and believe it. Whatever your feelings on Kaepernick and his political positions, he's opened up an opportunity for dialogue on some important issues that get to the heart of who we are and what we want to be -- not as a football community, but as a society.
Kaepernick the player could go a variety of ways from here. He could get another shot somewhere, play well and make good on it. He could get another shot somewhere and flop. And sure, there's a chance he might never play in the NFL again.
But in the meantime, we don't know whether he's still good enough to help anyone. We don't know that he's being "blackballed." And the people who are yelling at each other from those two distant ends of this discussion aren't helping their cases or his.
There are a lot of helpful, worthwhile, untapped discussions to be had about Colin Kaepernick. Unfortunately, too many people seem stuck in the same old patterns and don't seem to want to get out.