The NFL was in a different, seemingly unbeatable place back when Colin Kaepernick first decided to protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem back in 2016. The league had weathered the storm of criticism from its mishandling of domestic violence cases, namely the Ray Rice incident, powered through lawsuits and accusations that it was being less than forthright about the effect hits to the head have on its athletes. Through it all, ratings never wavered and popularity was steady.
So it was reasonable to have supreme confidence that a fringe-starter on one of the league’s worst teams deciding to quietly protest during the national anthem would be but a minor blip on the league’s radar. But things didn’t work out like that, mostly because Kaepernick’s protest hit white billionaires right in their white power sensibilities, causing them to overreact and the whole situation blow up in their faces.
I’m sure that all of the owners who may or may not have colluded to keep Kaepernick out of the league for the past two seasons thought he would just go quietly into the night. However, these league owners sorely underestimated the power of protest and the determination of Black people to see equal rights in this country. The longer they kept Kaep out of the league – out of spite, out of a need to make a point that independent thought and pro-Blackness wouldn’t be tolerated – the louder the rumbles became that the NFL had a systemic race problem from the top down. Coaches came up with ludicrous reasons for not signing him while trucking out trash quarterbacks who don’t hold a candle to Kaep’s on-field abilities. Owners found every excuse to keep him off of their teams and Black fans got increasingly fed up.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick did everything right. He donated his own money, won awards and watched the NFL trip over itself trying to figure out how to navigate a race conversation it wanted no parts of. Now, against all odds, he has the upper hand. The lawsuit against the league, alleging that the owners colluded to keep him out, is moving full steam ahead. And the Labor Day announcement that Kaep has been signed by Nike throughout this entire ordeal and he will be the face of its new “Just Do It” campaign is the uppercut that has the NFL staggering towards the ropes looking for help.
At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nike (owner of the NFL’s apparel contract for the next 10 years, which means the league has been indirectly funding Kaep’s movement, by the way) runs a Kaepernick commercial during opening kickoff for every game on Sunday, the season’s opening day. All because of one man and his refusal to budge for something he believed in, and a white power structure built on a house of cards.
American athletics has never seen anything quite like Colin Kaepernick. Unlike any athlete before him – not Ali, not Jabbar, not Robinson – Kaepernick is willing to watch the league that represents the pinnacle of his athletic achievement perish. The athletes before Kaepernick had a line of demarcation that was just before the destruction of their sport, but Kaep doesn’t have that point of no return. If the NFL and all its corruption, lies and inequality crumbles, then it crumbles. Kaepernick doesn’t need an NFL paycheck anymore, nor is he concerned with trying to reach another Super Bowl. He is not trying to change the league from within. He’s trying to change the world. And anyone with that mindset and power of being unafraid of consequences is more dangerous than 32 billionaires with power complexes.
To be clear, this isn’t some benevolent gesture from Nike. The company wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t see dollar signs at the end of the rainbow. Judging by Twitter’s excitement and support of Kaep, this new apparel line is looking to produce tons of money for the company, which will likely attach earnings to some charitable ventures. But even if Nike is doing this for money, the fact that there’s money to be had in amplifying those fighting for social justice is a win for people like Kaepernick – as long as the message doesn’t get lost in translation.
There’s always the fear that a big corporation like Nike can tamp down Kaep’s message as corporations often do, but Black people – the same Black people who have put the NFL under unrelenting pressure over the past couple of years – aren’t going to give the company a free pass. Any indication that Nike isn’t doing right by Kaepernick is for sure going to lead to the type of backlash and turning away that has damaged behemoth organizations in the past. In short, Nike can’t screw this up because the wrath of Black America and all of its massive influence and buying power isn’t something Nike wants to jeopardize.
What seemed like a story that would go away quickly has become a thorn in the NFL’s side. The death by a thousand cuts that could have all been prevented if the league simply allowed a man who deserved to play to earn a living at what he was clearly qualified to do. But now, Kaepernick has a billion-dollar campaign backing him and a lawsuit that can be catastrophic to the league.
What’s worse is that the NFL has exposed itself as a bastion of white supremacy, where rich white men try to exert power over the Black men who work for them. The league has been revealed as a place threatened by black excellence and an organization that bends to the will of Donald Trump.
Will the NFL actually die from all of this? No, of course not. But it sure as hell can become baseball: a sport where billionaires play with their money far removed from the cultural relevance it once had; all because of a refusal to embrace the changing cultural dynamics dictated by Black America.
This all seemed so impossible two years ago.
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