Colin Kaepernick outgrew the NFL

Colin Kaepernick outgrew the NFL

And what a show it must have been – step right up, folks, and witness a cultural giant shrink himself in front of your very eyes.

This performance should make for compelling drama. But the spectacle of a 34-year-old Kaepernick clawing his way back into a league that abandoned him feels regressive, like a yearning for a less aspirational past.

Kaepernick no longer fits into football. Google him, and the words “American activist” appear beneath his name. He stopped squeezing into the confined box of “football player” years ago. As with a snug varsity letterman’s jacket from his youth, he has outgrown the game.

He lived his beliefs and absorbed the blowback, from NFL fans who wrapped their disgust for pro-Blackness inside a cloak of red, white and blue patriotism. And from league owners who disguised their payback – refusing to sign him as a free agent in 2017 and every year since – as evidence Kaepernick couldn’t cut it as a quarterback anymore. He knew then that his protest would cost him his career. But he gained so much more.

After Kaepernick took his knee, as well as the slings and arrows, other players felt emboldened that they, too, didn’t have to stick to sports. Over time and slowly, the embers of protest grew into a raging flame that the NFL could no longer extinguish or ignore.

History will always be kind to the disrupters who caused good trouble and the revolutionaries who stood for something and lost everything. And it will show how Kaepernick overcame and defeated the NFL – its draft combine and power dynamic that he likened to the slave auction block in his Netflix limited series.

But now, watching Kaepernick try his hardest to return to a place he compared to a plantation feels like he’s going backward.

What happened to Kaepernick’s career was an unforgivable sin committed by the league’s owners. He should’ve been signed, even as a backup, in the immediate years following his protest. But being ostracized from the game allowed Kaepernick to grow his platform, and he proved that he didn’t need the billion-dollar behemoth that is American football to change sports.

He is an American activist, and much of his advocacy can be seen in his multimedia empire. Besides the Netflix series and Spike Lee joint, Kaepernick just released a children’s book for adopted biracial children who struggle with their identity. But his brand now needs expansion.

By barnstorming football fields with cameras in tow, looking for an NFL shot that probably will never come, Kaepernick remains limited in the role of Colin The Martyr. Maybe there’s still an audience with an appetite to learn more about him being blackballed all those years ago, but that reduces the progress Kaepernick should want to make with his platform.

Imagine how much more impactful he could be if he moves from victim to leader. In awakening more young athletes of color to their agency or challenging politicians to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. In being fully invested and advancing the cause from the front – and not as a backup in somebody’s quarterback room.

Colin Kaepernick is bigger than football. His knee is stronger than his arm. And the power he now wields as an emboldened, free-speaking reformer would be muted, reduced to a sideshow if he has to stand behind The Shield again.

For someone who built his brand on authenticity, there was something off about his performance Saturday. Not in the way he tossed around the ball. During his exhibition that aired on Big Ten Network, his passes had zip, and Kaepernick looked as sharp as could be expected in throwing bombs to guys fresh off the street. He still looked like an NFL quarterback. But there was something disconcerting in watching Kaepernick try to be who he once was when he might be graduating to a much more important responsibility.

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