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The NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick is becoming too much for fans of the sport

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David Dennis, Jr. is a lifelong professional football fan. He grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi, and now lives and works as a writer and teacher in Atlanta, Georgia — all places where football is a sacred fixture in the cultural landscape. He suffered through the bad years when his beloved New Orleans Saints were an awful team, and he cheered like a madman in 2010 when they won Super Bowl XLIV.

But this year, Dennis’ progressive political views threaten to displace his pigskin passions. Until former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is signed to a team’s roster, Dennis swears not to watch another National Football League game.

With his one-man boycott, Dennis is finding solidarity with Kaepernick, who remains an evolving storyline this season despite not being on an NFL roster. To be sure, Kaepernick’s struggle to find a place in football shoves the current conversation on race relations in America into an unexpected place: our national obsession with professional football.

For football-crazed fans, there will be no getting away from discussions of racial issues as they watch the games. Other athletes — including white pro football players, who were largely silent last year — have copied Kaepernick’s protest during preseason games and still more are speaking up in his defense. It’s fair to say racial issues will only become an increasing topic of concern on and off the playing field as the season progresses — particularly if football analysts, fans, and social activists continue to question why Kaepernick isn’t playing when he clearly should be on the field.

Dennis announced his boycott in June in an online article posted on Bossip, arguing that Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem throughout last season has led to his being blackballed by NFL owners.

At the start of last year’s season, during a preseason game, Kaepernick sat during the playing of the National Anthem. When asked about it afterward, he explained that it was a personal protest of the way African Americans and other disadvantaged groups are treated by the police.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told reporters at the time. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Dennis was immediately impressed by Kaepernick’s willingness to put his career on the line by taking a political stand. But as the football season ended and Kaepernick failed to secure a new contract to play with another team, Dennis choose to make a statement of support for the outspoken player.

“When I first mentioned that I wouldn’t watch the games, a lot of people said I was crazy for not watching,” Dennis told me during a recent phone interview. “Some didn’t believe me. Others said I was making an empty threat because it was summer and Kapernick would be signed by the time the season started.”

Not so. The NFL kicks off its season next week with a nationally televised Thursday night game, the Kansas City Chiefs at the New England Patriots. As of this week, Kaepernick remains a free agent, still hoping to land a quarterback’s job with a team willing to buck convention and controversy by signing him.

Typically, the days leading up to the start of a new professional football season is a moment of national solidarity, a period when die-hard fans flee the woes of an often-troubled world by retreating into a stadium or sinking into a couch in front of a television screen. There, with a beer one hand, snacks in the other, and the green and white gridiron stretched out before them, a football fan’s life is simply defined by which team hits harder and scores more touchdowns.

But this year, the continued controversy surrounding Kaepernick’s protest is an unavoidable mark on the start of the season. What’s more, it’s been given new energy and a level of player outrage and activism in the wake of the racial turmoil in Charlottesville, Virginia, where violence erupted during a white supremacist rally earlier this month.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett cited the violent street fighting in Charlottesville as motivation for his decision not to stand for the National Anthem during a recent preseason game. “With everything that’s been going on the last couple of months, and especially after the last couple of days seeing what’s going on in Virginia,” Bennett told ESPN. “I just wanted to be able to use my platform to be able to continuously speak on injustice.”

Brian Mazique, a sports contributor to Forbes magazine, suggested in a recent post that Kaepernick’s protest and the public reactions perfectly mirror the national conversations about race. He wrote:

America is in a state of unrest and much of it is rooted in racial tension. The makeup of Kaepernick’s issue meshes seamlessly with the country’s current dysfunction. While Kaepernick’s protest could have been executed better, the images that have arisen and the dialog that it has generated could lead to resolutions and empowerment.

There is power in the pictures of Kaepernick kneeling with his afro on full display. It hearkens back to images of civil rights leaders from the 1960s and 1970s.

Groups such as the NAACP and Kappa Alpha Psi, Kaepernick’s college fraternity, are working to keep alive the issue of his protest and absence from the playing field. More than a thousand people gathered last week in New York, outside the NFL headquarters, to demand that the quarterback is hired before the season starts.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t meet with the protesters, but has said the league isn’t blackballing Kaepernick. In a June interview with the Washington Post, Goodell called the NFL a “meritocracy” and said that the league’s owners would sign any player who might help them win. “So those are football decisions,” he told the Post. “They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”

By most objective measures, Kaepernick, who declared himself a free agent after last season, should be playing this season. According to Sports Illustrated, he was the 17th best quarterback in the NFL, good enough to help a struggling team — say, the Jacksonville Jaguars — with less productive quarterbacks.

But many observers say team owners fear backlash from fans and sponsors if they sign Kaepernick, because the quarterback raised the issue of police brutality through his silent protest during the 2016 season.

“It’s a year later and we’re still talking about Kaepernick,” said Ron Thomas, director of the Journalism and Sports program at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “It’s almost as prominent again as it was this time last year. This has become a story that has legs, as we say in the news business, and it’s growing tentacles in new directions as news events emerge to correspond with Kaepernick’s protest.”

Thomas said more football players, including some white athletes who had been absent in the protests last year, have expressed solidarity with Kaepernick.

“The most interesting thing to me about this whole issue is that people who are critical of Kaepernick are upset because he exercised his Constitutional right to freedom of speech,” Thomas said. “The problem is that he was talking about social injustice and racism in this country and he played a sport that is conservative, or at least run by men who hold very conservative political views.”

People raise their arms as hey gather in support of unsigned NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, in front of NFL headquarters in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Protesters voice their support for Kaepernick in front of NFL headquarters, Aug. 23, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

Thomas noted that professional athletes have been more vocal about social justice in recent years, notably since jurors found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, and many have been critical of President Donald Trump’s leadership on racial issues.

“If you’re a pro athlete and you have that kind of sensibility about racial issues, then the things that Donald Trump has done will exacerbate that sensitivity,” Thomas said, adding that many white athletes share political views with their black teammates. “A lot of the players are intelligent people but we don’t hear them speak out about other things than their sport.”

Thomas covered professional sports for decades, from the late 1970s to 2007, including professional basketball for USA Today and the San Francisco 49ers for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Kaepernick is certainly better than so many of the quarterbacks who are playing, the second or third stringers,” he said. “No question, he has been blackballed by the NFL.”

Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation magazine, agreed, but stopped short of calling it an organized effort. “It’s so painfully obvious, but unproveable that the owners have colluded to keep [Kaepernick] from playing,” he told me in a recent interview. “The individual motivations of individual owners may differ from team to team. It’s a big mix of reasons, but the sum total is that someone who is qualified to work isn’t working.”

Still, Zirin is harshly critical of NFL owners. “They view the players like they’re animals, not human beings,” he said, noting that they have hired players accused of violence against women, but won’t hire one who stands up for civil rights. “When you dehumanize a player and they exhibit anti-social behavior, it’s easy to shrug that off because that what animals do. But when a player stands up and expresses his human rights, the owners find that unconscionable.”

That, said Zirin, is why Kaepernick is being ostracized by the league owners. “What’s happening with him is not so much about his ability to play or not play,” he said. “It’s a shot across the bow for the players, particularly the black players, telling them to get in line and be quiet. If you don’t, then you’ll be out just like Kaepernick.”

Professional football is suffering through an identity crisis that makes it easy for fans like Dennis to walk away.

“I’ve been less so into football in the last few years because of all the domestic violence situations,” Dennis said, referring to specifically how the NFL handled an incident involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was videotaped in 2014 punching his fiancée into unconsciousness on an Atlantic City hotel elevator. “But the Kaepernick thing was the last straw. I just can’t watch [NFL] football anymore.”

So how will he fill his fall Sunday afternoons, if he’s not glued to the NFL broadcasts on television? “My wife probably has that all booked out for me,” Dennis said with a chuckle. “Family time will be my Sunday time. But I’m also thinking of dedicating a few of those Sundays to community service in the spirit of Kaepernick and what he represents.”

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