Home / Entertainment / Did the NFL manage to silence Colin Kaepernick’s protest at the Super Bowl? | Sport

Did the NFL manage to silence Colin Kaepernick’s protest at the Super Bowl? | Sport

Six years ago this week, a 25-year-old mid-season injury replacement for the San Francisco 49ers stepped onto the field at the Superdome in New Orleans, becoming only the fourth quarterback to start in a Super Bowl in the same season as his first career start. So much has transpired in the time since Colin Kaepernick’s metamorphosis into the most divisive figure in American sports, and one could argue society at large, that it’s easy to forget the overnight sensation he generated as a mostly anonymous understudy in dizzying ascent, captivating the country with his rare blend of arm strength and rushing ability.

That night Kaepernick’s inexperience was laid bare in the first half as he was harried, hit and harassed by the Baltimore Ravens’ formidable defense. But with San Francisco trailing 28-6 in the third quarter, the young quarterback came alive. He made one play after another and chipped away at the deficit, marching the Niners to within five yards of a game-winning touchdown in the dying seconds. The Ravens held on for the 34-31 win, but the ingenue’s finishing kick augured a future of limitless promise.

There was little then to suggest Kaepernick’s impact would in a short time extend far beyond the field, well beyond the scope the typical sportsman, and that his decision to take a knee in protest of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence would make him one of the most vilified men in the United States, cost him his football career and usher in an era of athlete activism unprecedented since the 1960s. His cause was given mainstream corporate backing in September when Nike announced the most famous unemployed man in the country would be the face of a new ad campaign for the 30th anniversary of their ‘Just Do It’ slogan, casting a shadow over the league’s opening weekend.

But when America’s biggest event returned to the Deep South last Sunday for the first time since the most important game of Kaepernick’s life, all signs of his movement were relegated to background noise and demonstrated the challenges of punching a hole in the hype surrounding the country’s secular religion, which for all the hand-wringing over TV ratings remains a national obsession. The prospect of a Super Bowl in Atlanta, considered the cradle of America’s civil rights movement, had appeared to be a tailor-made platform for amplifying Kaepernick’s concerns over systemic injustice, but signs of his message were all but absent on the ground throughout the week.

Sure, they were there if you looked. A number of musical acts made headlines for reportedly turned down the halftime show over the NFL’s perceived blackballing of Kaepernick, leading to a conspicuously delayed rollout of the league’s official reveal. NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant wore his jersey in solidarity. Artists like the film director Ava DuVernay called for a boycott of the game, joining the rapper Common, actor Nick Cannon, actress Zendaya and singer Janelle Monáe in deluging social media with the #ImWithKaep hashtag.

Ava DuVernay (@ava)

I will not be a spectator, viewer or supporter of the #SuperBowl today in protest of the @NFL’s racist treatment of @Kaepernick7 and its ongoing disregard for the health + well-being of all its players. To watch the game is to compromise my beliefs. It’s not worth it. #ImWithKap pic.twitter.com/fNEeke0crs

February 3, 2019

Yet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has earned hundreds of millions in salary during his tenure as a human shield for the cadre of billionaire owners he represents, skillfully pirouetted from repeated queries on Kaepernick during Wednesday’s state-of-the-league press conference like a scatback slipping tacklers in the open field. The league enlisted a collection of civil rights leaders ambassador Andrew Young, representative John Lewis and the wife and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr for the pre-game coin toss and flooded their programming with PSAs showing the league’s charity work in the community and league executives touring landmarks like the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The show must go on and it did without a hitch, dreadful slog of a game notwithstanding.

Kaepernick is 31 today, an age when quarterbacks are considered in their prime. It’s been more than 25 months since he played in an NFL game, and it seems unlikely he’ll ever play another. He’s stayed almost entirely out of the spotlight during that time while living in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, insistent that he wants the conversation to focus on the issues rather than himself. Over the next few months, an arbitrator will rule on his grievance against the league, in which he alleges the owners have conspired to keep him off the field because of his protests. Proving collusion by all 32 owners will not be easy due to the high legal standard of the claim, but a quick survey of the middling quarterbacks who have received job opportunities during Kaepernick’s exile speaks volumes.

The NFL bungled its handling of the protest from the beginning: how quickly they could have avoided their ongoing headache if they’d granted their players their right to free expression? Or if they’d pulled Kaepernick aside from the beginning, made a good-faith effort to understand the issues of police brutality and pledged, say, to match every donation made by a player to social justice causes from the start?

Yet last week’s Super Bowl demonstrated the position of power from which the NFL is operating and the uphill battle that remains. Kaepernick succeeded by starting a conversation, but for at least one week of breathless noise it was almost impossible to hear.

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