The price of free expression in the NFL

Yesterday, the head of the FBI testified before Congress, in large part, to controvert slanderous accusations against a former president by the current president, who is under federal investigation for possible electoral collusion with a foreign nation-state and faces scrutiny for unseemly nepotism, constitutional violations, selective contempt for the First Amendment, and indifference — or worse — to the voices of racial and religious minorities.

Also yesterday — at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, in a style usually confined to the campaign trail — the president appeared to take credit for the apparent blackballing of an NFL player.

It’s hard to believe Donald Trump, a man who once tried — and failed — to set up a football league to rival the NFL, has sway over NFL teams’ decision-making. Furthermore, although one general manager has cited concern about incurring a nasty Trump tweet as a potential deterrent to signing Colin Kaepernick, that explanation still feels more like a feeble pretense concealing something more sinister.

As talking about Trump is inescapable in politics’ current discourse, talking about the dearth of quarterbacks is inescapable in the NFL’s. That scarcity is why quarterbacks with starting experience or upside make so much money and so rarely become available.

However, one 29-year-old quarterback, with a Super Bowl appearance and no criminal record or significant injuries, remains a free agent.

In a world where teams scrambled to acquire Mike Glennon at a $14.5 million price tag next season, there is not a merit-based reason for Kaepernick’s phone to stay silent.

The cardinal sin in the NFL is not getting hurt, getting arrested, or even playing poorly; it is to be perceived as a distraction.

After initial fuss that Kaepernick would become such a distraction, there was no evidence from within the 49ers locker room that he did. In fact, quite the opposite: His teammates awarded him the team’s most prestigious honor players can vote on, for his “inspirational and courageous play.”

And Kaepernick has already come out and said that next season, he won’t continue kneeling during the anthem, the action that ostensibly incited distraction.

Players with less NFL success than Kaepernick, even those who have committed real crimes, tend to at least get called for workouts.

Tim Tebow, a walking ESPN headline who was inept as a pro, still received chances from four different teams, despite reportedly refusing to consider switching positions — what some might call “sacrificing for what’s best for the team.”

And, just last year, New York Giants owner John Mara strongly defended kicker Josh Brown, whom the organization knew to have been involved in 20-plus domestic violence incidents with his wife, and said the organization was “comfortable” re-signing him. And that was for a kicker.

It’s disingenuous to believe that Kaepernick is being knocked for making a political statement; rather, it’s that NFL teams don’t tolerate the political statement he made: in his words, that “this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all, and it’s not happening for all right now.”

To underscore the point here, just yesterday, former Denver Broncos quarterback and current general manager John Elway sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee — on letterhead prominently displaying his NFL team’s logo — urging the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. There has been little outrage towards Elway labeling him a distraction worthy of widespread disdain.

Though acting under the auspices of preserving team unity, when the general managers and head coaches who make personnel decisions (of whom 17 percent are black) actively discourage basic civil liberties of their subordinates (of whom 70 percent are black), it feels more like imposing obedience.

Why is a player’s peaceful protest more threatening to team unity than a team executive’s public endorsement of a political appointee on company letterhead?

While not a de jure ban, the threat of blacklisting players who fall outside of football conformity effectively silences them. In a political climate sharply divided along racial lines, a culture that actively thwarts diversity of thought is oppressive, toxic, and kindles the real distraction.

Let’s face it, the NFL is an entertainment industry that profits from making a violent sport in which mostly young black men trade on their bodies comfortable for a mostly white audience.

And nothing — not even criminal activity — seems to stir the pot quite like pointing out racial inequality. The criminality reinforces the stereotypical narrative, while Kaepernick’s protest challenges it.

In the last five months, Kaepernick has donated $500,000 to myriad charities, including veterans organizations, and kicked off a social media campaign to raise $2 million for food and water for starving Somalians. While those things alone don’t qualify one to play in the NFL, they do make vitriol and ostracism, especially from the president, feel a bit off-key.

Kaepernick’s societal impact far transcends anything he’s ever done on a football field. That some NFL fans and teams can’t bring themselves to see that makes him all the more principled and courageous, and makes them look all the more influenced by race.