I want to see Colin Kaepernick employed as a player in the National Football League next season.
I want to live in a version of America that doesn’t eliminate a man’s way to earn a living because he took a peaceful, unpopular stand.
I want to witness Kaepernick, a defiant American rebel, get a fair chance to sustain and revive his career.
Sure, there are risks for an NFL team. Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem last season, inspiring a tidal wave of scorn. The NFL team that signs him can expect protests, canceled season tickets and long-running vilification from Fox News. And maybe an aggressive tweet from Donald J. Trump, too.
In the recent past, Kaepernick has failed to soar as a quarterback. He compiled a 1-10 record as a starter for the 49ers in 2016. Still, the quarterback who led the 49ers to 31 points (and a loss) in the 2013 Super Bowl has not vanished. In 2016, Kaepernick crafted a 90.3 quarterback ranking, 20th among NFL starters. He threw 16 touchdowns, only four interceptions and rushed for 468 yards. He’s blessed with a powerful arm, and he’s only 29. He’s not done. Not even close.
He’s iffy as an NFL starter. I get that. But he’s not iffy as an NFL backup. He’s one of our planet’s top 40 quarterbacks. He deserves – regardless of his societal views – a place on an NFL roster.
Let’s get this straight: I’m similar to many of you; Kaepernick makes me uncomfortable. I stand, always, for the anthem, and part of me wishes Kaepernick would stand with us to affirm our nation’s matchless promises. These are promises we always will struggle to keep.
But remember this:
Nothing is more American than finding the courage to swim against popular opinion and make a peaceful public protest. Kaepernick did this swimming all through the 2016 season. It wasn't my kind of swimming, but it took some serious nerve to kneel during the anthem while 75,000 were standing.
This is not a simple discussion. Football factors are there, too. Kaepernick must lower his salary demands. He’s seeking a yearly wage in the $9 million-$10 million range. He needs to prepare to settle for half, or less, of his demands.
And Kaepernick must prove to NFL suitors that he’s more focused on quarterbacking an NFL team than leading a nationwide protest movement.
49ers general manager John Lynch, who once pulverized receivers as a Bronco safety, recently spoke in private with Kaepernick. Lynch asked the tough football questions that diminish the quarterback’s value. Kaepernick, Lynch said, convincingly answered all the questions.
“He is fully committed to wanting to be in this league,” Lynch said in a radio interview.
Still, his commitment and talent might not be enough.
Owners are listening to enraged fans, who double as customers. Giants co-owner John Mara told Sports Illustrated his team would not consider signing Kaepernick.
“All my years being in the league, I never received more emotional mail from people than I did about that issue,” said Mara, who has worked with the Giants 24 years. “It wasn’t one or two letters. It was a lot. It’s an emotional, emotional issue for a lot of people, more so than any other issue I’ve run into.”
Mara is dead-on in his description of the Kaepernick controversy. I’ve talked with a few dozen friends, and non-friends, about Kaepernick, and it’s never a boring conversation. Fingers are pointed. Shouting is common.
His critics, who are legion, say Kaepernick tossed away his chance to play in the NFL by disrespecting his flag and his country. These critics say NFL owners have every right to avoid the hassles of signing the controversial and polarizing Kaepernick.
And the critics are correct, in their way.
Private companies absolutely have the right to do the wrong thing. To do the un-American thing. To do the thing that will diminish and threaten all of us. Or at least all of us who have, or might someday have, the courage to protest.
Today, Kaepernick’s livelihood is in peril because he took an unpopular stand. He kneeled while surrounded by tens of thousands of American boys, girls, women and men who were standing and singing. His protest required equal parts defiant courage and self-threatening recklessness.
Tomorrow, your livelihood could be in danger because you take an unpopular stand. You might be thinking nothing you ever do, or ever will do, could be seen as reckless or defiant.
Don’t be so sure about that.