September 1, 2016 was the date that changed the NFL forever. That night in San Diego was when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel for the National Anthem, stating he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”.
Fast forward to the present day, with racial tensions running amok, America’s most-watched sports league finds itself in a precarious situation. Kaepernick signing with an NFL team would further politicize the product, alienating the 61% of football-watching Americans who want to keep politics out of the NFL discourse. Conversely, if Kaepernick were not to sign an NFL contract, that would continue the trend of dwindling support from younger audiences. According to independent data, Americans age 18 to 24 show “low interest” in the NFL product, and 51% of millennials say that the football field is an appropriate place to showcase political beliefs. Advertisers covet younger audiences because of their tendency to have more discretionary income and in hopes of creating more long-term and, preferably, life-long customers.
Recently, amid pressure from activists and media outlets, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell “encourages” teams to sign Kaep, and Vice President of Active Player Development Troy Vincent echoed the same sentiment, adding that the quarterback is “talented enough to play in the National Football League”. Is Kaepernick talented enough to play in the league this season? Perhaps, although it has been a while since the public saw him play last. Will he play in the league this season? Only time can answer that question. The question that needs to be asked is, “Does Kaepernick benefit from playing in the NFL this season?”
To answer that question, rewind to the year 1996. Legendary Hip-Hop producer Dr. Dre made his exodus from Death Row Records to start his own label, Aftermath Entertainment, which would be a subsidiary record company of Interscope Records. That same year, the label released Dr. Dre Presents The Aftermath, an album consisting of songs performed by himself and fellow Aftermath Entertainment artists. Despite its Platinum RIAA certification, the album did not receive favorable reviews from critics and fans. Following the lack of fanfare for the project, there were rumblings that the label was in financial despair.
Then in 1998, Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine discovered a Detroit rapper by the name of Eminem. Iovine recommended that Dre sign Eminem to his Aftermath Entertainment outfit. Dre eventually did, but it came at a short-term cost. According to Ronin Ro, who authored Dr. Dre: The Biography in 2007, when Dre played Eminem’s tape to his black employees, many of them questioned his judgment. One manager even asked, “This guy is blond with blue eyes. What are you doing?” This was during a time period when there was very little diversity in the Hip-Hop ranks. The vast majority of acts were black males and disrupting the status quo would have immediate consequences. When the signing was complete, Dr. Dre lost some of his street cred. The same Dr. Dre who rapped on songs like “N.W.A.” and “Fuck Da Police” now signed a chubby white boy to his label. Some critics accused him of selling out for white America. 100 million records later, Dre’s signing of Eminem proved to be a smashing success.
Parallelly, Colin Kaepernick signing to an NFL team could have a similar effect to what happened to Dr. Dre many years ago. Kaepernick, with the help of Nike, has developed an anti-white, anti-police, anti-establishment public persona. His afro, a callback to the popular hairstyle of the Black Panther Party, has become his fashion statement of choice. He has created the Know Your Rights camp, where a video of Kaepernick speaking about black power and raising his fist can be seen on the home page of the site. He started a legal defense fund to pay for lawyers of those arrested during the George Floyd protests. Making the rounds on social media is a side-by-side photo of Kaepernick kneeling and a portrait of George Floyd, connecting the two events. If Kaep were to sign with an NFL team, he would potentially damage his entire “pro-black” brand. While some would view it as a success claiming that the NFL finally caved under the racial scrutiny, some would definitely say that he sold out by taking money from the league that tried to blackball him in the first place. Images of him wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey, or a Baltimore Ravens hoodie, or a Minnesota Vikings shirt might not align with his brand as much as his Kunta Kinte shirt does.
The former 49ers quarterback, who has been given an opportunity to return to the league in the past, realizes it is not much for him to gain in an NFL uniform. The contract he would sign would likely not be for starting quarterback money. Accounting for the fact that he has not played professional American football in over three years, a deal closer to the league minimum may be more realistic. If he were to get some on-field action, he would be severely risking his health. Surely, there would be a laundry list of players, who oppose the political circus he helped usher into the sport, that would risk fines and suspensions to hurt Kaepernick. Also, he could not continue to tell the narrative that the NFL is blackballing him and freezing him out of the league. Staying out of the league while simultaneously using its platform to promote his message is his equivalent to Dr. Dre signing Eminem.
If social justice for marginalized people and police reform is truly what he covets, then an NFL field might be the last place Colin needs to be.