As of August 13, 2017, Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed. What a surprise! Many people saw this coming just as soon as he bucked the system that is the NFL. Some have called Kaepernick a modern day martyr because he has courageously stood up for his beliefs in the face of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate: The NFL. Although this situation is unfortunate, it is certainly not a new issue. Black athletes have stood in opposition to oppression for many years. And when those athletes ruffled enough feathers, they were blackballed. Kaepernick is very intelligent, so I believe he knew what he would face by going against the system.
Kaepernick's Peaceful Protest
For just a moment, let us examine Kaepernick’s action that has offended so many “patriots.” For those who do not know, Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, decided to sit during the singing of the national anthem. To be clear: Kaepernick did not defile a flag, or perform any illegal act. Instead, he exercised his freedom of speech. The U.S. Constitution provides certain rights to citizens of the U.S.—but like most things—there are limits.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
But I'm Protected by the First Amendment!
The First Amendment is applicable to governmental actors, such as local, state and federal employers. The National Football League, however, is a private employer. That said, an employee of a private employer does not have the right to claim First Amendment freedom of speech while at work. Kaerpernick was an employee of the 49ers, so although they could not force him to stand, they were able to take other actions against him that any other private employer could take against its employees.
To help illustrate that point, let us assume that Employer X is a media company. John Employee works as a news anchor for the company. Employer X has a longstanding company policy providing that news anchors cannot have visible tattoos. John Employee, after working for Employer X for 9 years, decides that he wants to tattoo the Bill of Rights across his forearms, neck and forehead. John believed he was exercising his First Amendment Right to free speech. However, because Employer X was a private employer, its policy prohibiting visible tattoos trumped John’s freedom of speech while he was at work. As a result, John Employee was terminated.
This hypothetical situation should be considered only to illustrate how an employee’s First Amendment rights are not absolute.
Some people believe we live in a post-racial society. This is not true, however. Race is still a major factor in a lot of the events that happen in this country. To suggest that race does not play a role in Kaepernick’s inability to find a new NFL team is either recklessly naive, or intentionally evasive. My parents have always told me that you can tell a person’s true feelings for you during times of adversity. It is very easy to be friends with someone when things are smooth. In the case of the NFL owners, it is also very easy to support a player who helps add value to the NFL brand, which is already worth more than $62 billion. Prior to Kaepernick’s decision to kneel, to my knowledge, he did not have any issues finding work. He was a very successful quarterback. He was well-positioned to continue receiving seven-figure paychecks for years to come. However, the moment he went against the grain, the NFL turned its collective back on him.
Peaceful Protest is Not Akin to Criminal Acts
The sad part about this case is that certain people have compared Kaepernick’s decision to peacefully protest to illegal acts committed by other NFL players. However, it is not at all surprising. It is eerily similar to how the media often chooses to label black victims as criminals even when they are in fact victims. Here, members of the media have tried to assassinate Kaepernick’s character by comparing him to athletes who were charged with committing criminal acts. For the uniformed, this makes it much easier to see Kaepernick as an antagonist instead of a law abiding citizen exercising his rights. This, again, is a typical media trick. Do not be fooled.
The Road Ahead Will Be Rough and Rocky
The road ahead for Kaepernick will be rocky. I do not think he will ever play for another NFL franchise. Further, I do not think he will ever have the chance to work for the NFL in any capacity. I believe the endorsement deals he once received will never return.
Kaepernick is fighting against a system of oppression that has been crushing Black men for hundreds of years. It started with slavery. Then, after Blacks began to make progress during Reconstruction, those efforts were thwarted with the system of oppression known as Jim Crow. Once the Jim Crow laws were abolished, mass incarceration reared its ugly head.
Sometimes an unfortunate situation can push a person towards what they were put on this planet to do. In this case, maybe Kaepernick was placed on this planet to join the fight against oppression. Maybe that will be his legacy. Maybe football will only be a small part of who he is as a man and ultimately what his legacy will be. Only time will tell.