Kaepernick’s critique of America foretold it all.
But if you think everything is fine now that there’s a new face in the White House, think again. Remember that he began his protest not under former President Donald J. Trump, but in the waning days of the Obama administration. He knelt not just against the cracking structure of modern day racism, but its faulty foundation, laid down centuries ago and built upon ever since.
His shadow still hangs over a league that heads to the Super Bowl acting as if he has never existed. N.F.L. owners — and their chief spokesman, Goodell — would rather slice him from collective memory and move on.
“There is nothing more humbling for the billionaires who own N.F.L. teams than to be proven wrong, especially by a Black athlete who is seen as a thorn in their side,” Derrick White, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Kentucky and an expert on race and football, said when we spoke last week.
That’s why the league settled the union grievance filed by the former 49ers quarterback and his former teammate Eric Reid. The pair claimed they were blackballed by the N.F.L. for protesting. A multimillion-dollar payout, replete with a confidentiality agreement, was easier to swallow than giving Kaepernick more airtime.
After Floyd’s killing and protests against police brutality intensified around the world, Goodell was forced to admit the league had been wrong not to listen to players who had been speaking out against systemic racism for years. He summoned the courage to utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” And he carefully avoided mention of Kaepernick.
The N.F.L. soon began co-opting the message. Sadly enough, the players have largely gone along with the plan. Kneeling protests waned to a trickle. The riot in Washington seemed to offer a prime opportunity for clamoring, unified protest. It didn’t happen. There were games to be played. Money to be made. Jobs to hold on to. And nobody with Kaepernick’s spine.
You have to hand it to the czars of football. They’ve neutralized the message. They made just enough room for the previously unthinkable in a sport so conservative, so connected to the police and the military and the flag. Think of the helmets with the social justice messaging and the names of victims of police shootings, and the pithy phrases painted on the edge of fields.