Cooper: Reaction to Kaepernick protest shows NFL is toxic for social change

Danny Cooper, Columnist

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick used to be hated by opposing fans because of his strong arm and scrambling ability. He is now attracting widespread animosity on the sidelines by refusing to stand during pregame performances of the national anthem to protest police treatment of people of color in the United States. Though several fellow NFL players have expressed their support for Kaepernick’s protest, with some even joining him, he has received plenty of criticism from players, fans and front office officials alike. The virulent reaction to Kaepernick from certain NFL figures is just the latest indication that the league’s commitment to social change is lacking — particularly when it gets in the way of a profit.

Whether or not Kaepernick is right is irrelevant. He has the right to protest in this manner, which the 49ers organization expressed in a statement earlier this week. Despite that, Kaepernick has been labeled a “traitor” by one NFL executive, according to Bleacher Report, with another comparing the collective dislike for Kaepernick in NFL front offices to that for Rae Carruth, a wide receiver convicted of attempting to kill a woman and her unborn child in 1999. A group of NFL officials interviewed in the same article estimated that it would be nearly impossible for Kaepernick to find another job in the NFL should he be released by the 49ers.

It wouldn’t be the first time that speaking out on social issues has led to unemployment and controversy for an NFL player. In 2013, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team, despite performing fairly well on the field. Kluwe claimed he was released due to his LGBT activism rubbing team officials the wrong way, which the team denied. Another NFL player, Brendon Ayanbadejo, came under fire for expressing his support for same-sex marriage in 2012, with a Maryland lawmaker sending a letter to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to “inhibit such expressions from your employees.”

NFL owners, who are almost exclusively white, should be the last people to silence the league’s largely black population. The players sacrifice their short- and long-term health for the profit of the owners and in turn gain a fair measure of influence off the field. They should have the right to use their position in the spotlight to push for societal change.

The NFL is ultra-concerned with protecting its image and making a profit, the two being inextricably linked. The league makes efforts to reach out to communities, with NFL Play 60 and the pinkification of equipment every October for breast cancer awareness, and these are appreciated. However, one must question the league’s actual commitment to community outreach in light of misguided fines and suspensions, such as the one it doled out to Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams after he honored his late mother with his eye black during an October 2015 game.

Even the patriotism demonstrated by NFL teams seems to be more a matter of appearances. A 2015 Senate investigation found that the Department of Defense paid as much as $6.8 million in taxpayer money for professional sports teams to honor the military during games. The report states, “it seems more appropriate that any organization with a genuine interest in honoring [service members]… should do so at its own expense.” The same NFL officials horrified by Kaepernick’s protest seemed to have used taxpayer money to profit off of patriotism.

If the NFL wants show it is truly dedicated to honoring the U.S., officials should support Kaepernick’s protest and message. He has explained his decision to protest is because he “love[s] America” and wants to improve it. By allowing Kaepernick to use his platform to encourage important discussions rather than demanding his silence, the NFL would show that it shares a common desire with the embattled quarterback, not just prioritizing the need to make a profit.

Danny Cooper is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.