NFL Teams are Right to Blackball Colin Kaepernick
Twenty one quarterbacks have been signed to new contracts in free agency this year. Included in this mix are names like Kellen Moore, EJ Manuel, and Mike Glennon, who received a contract worth over $14 million a year this past March. Yet the most accomplished quarterback that was on the market has not yet been signed, or even visited another team. That player is Colin Kaepernick, and the difficulty he has had this offseason is a reminder that at the end of the day the NFL is not about wins and losses, it’s about dollars and cents.
It wasn’t so long ago that Colin Kaepernick had the ball five yards away from taking the lead with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVII. At the time he was at the top of the football world. An athletic marvel running a 4.5 second 40 at 6’4”, he showed enough as a pure football passer that former NFL quarterback (and genuine film room geek) Ron Jaworski said the 49ers star “could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.”
While Kaepernick never reached those levels on the field, he remained a capable quarterback during his time with the increasingly chaotic 49ers. Even last year, when the team went 2-14 on the season, Kaepernick outperformed Blaine Gabbert — who recently signed with the Arizona Cardinals.
While NFL teams have tried to make excuses with side issues like concerns over his vegan diet, or questioning his desire to play football, or unrealistic salary demands, the reason he hasn’t been signed is because Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem last year have made him toxic. He is being blackballed by NFL teams.
And rightfully so.
This has nothing to do with the merits of Kaepernick’s case. America does have an issue with an increasingly militarized police force. It’s not even about his injection of politics into football with his support of Black Lives Matter, or his idiotic admiration of Fidel Castro. At the end of the day, however, the NFL is not a game. It is first and foremost a business. Like any business, the success depends upon serving the desires of consumers, and NFL consumers don’t want to see Colin Kaepernick play football.
Regardless of one’s individual opinion on Kaepernick’s actions last years, it is undeniable that it hit a certain nerve within the country. A Google trend analysis shows that among other players involved with a controversial off the field story, including Tom Brady (deflategate), Richie Incognito (bullygate), Ray Rice (domestic violence), Adrian Peterson (using a switch on his son), and Ben Roethlisberger (sexual assault accusation), only two stories garnered more interest: Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.
It is worth noting how the league handled all three incidents, and the public reaction to them. In the case of Ray Rice, after TMZ released the video of him hitting his then-fiancé in an elevator, he never played another down of football, nor even received a workout invitation from a team. While Adrian Peterson continues to play in the NFL, signing a contract with the New Orleans Saints this offseason, he was forced to sit out a full season in the prime of his career. The decision to suspend Peterson was highly controversial within the league, with the Players Association suing Commissioner Goodell over the decision. A majority of fans, including the Minnesota Vikings, wanted to see Peterson punished. The league abided.
While Kaepernick’s actions obviously did not involve violence, they still alienated him with the majority of NFL fans. According to Gallup, over 70% of NFL fans objected to his protest. While a majority of those polled did not think the league should punish the quarterback for his action, polls found that a third of NFL fans were less likely to watch the product because of Kaepernick. Incidentally, 2016 was a down year for ratings. It would be wrong to pin the decline entirely on the shoulders of the former 49er — it’s possible election season played a major role — but any hitch to the ratings machine of the NFL is going to get the attention of every league owner.
While the NFL certainly doesn’t represent an ideal symbol of free market capitalism, the success of the product is still dependent upon the wishes of their consumers. While the team’s roster is managed by the general manager, molded by the coach, and led by their quarterback, the lifeblood of the league (and the franchises within it) is its fan base.
The capitalistic social order, therefore, is an economic democracy in the strictest sense of the word. In the last analysis, all decisions are dependent on the will of the people as consumers. Thus, whenever there is a conflict between the consumers’ views and those of the business managers, market pressures assure that the views of the consumers win out eventually.
Now this does not mean that every roster decision is going to be based on a focus group, or that a good general manager should be obsessed with being popular. (That's usually the sign of bad ownership.) At the end of the day, nothing grows a fan base quite like winning. Tim Tebow was one of the most popular players in the NFL, but no team thought it could win a championship with his limited skill set.
It’s also clear no team views Kaepernick as a championship player anymore either. So while a team like the Jets or Browns could reasonably view Kaepernick as a more talented player than anyone else in their quarterback room, no franchise is going to risk the health of the league on a team not yet ready to make a serious run for the Super Bowl. Similarly, very few franchises are going to risk alienating fans just to sign a backup.
Whether this is viewed as unfair or unjust is irrelevant. Kaepernick is fully entitled to his freedom of speech, but he’s also subjected to the consequences of his actions on his market value.
Because at the end of the day, football may be king — but the customer is always right.