When NFL owners look at out-of-work quarterback Johnny Manziel, they see themselves. Or at least they see their ne’er-do-well son or nephew: the one who was raised in cushy wealth, partied too hard, maybe got in a few legal misunderstandings with the girls, but deep down is a “good boy” and always worthy of a second chance. Playing ability isn’t even part of the conversation. They want him in their club.
When NFL owners look at out-of-work NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they see a threat. Again, playing ability isn’t even part of the conversation. He is the outsider, the agitator, the one who asks whether black lives really matter to owners and fans; the one who questions how their business can glorify a country that eats its young. He’s their historic nightmare: the one who publicly tells the emperors that they have no clothes.
Both of these quarterbacks are currently out of work. For the uninitiated, Johnny Manziel has a record of physically assaulting women, substance abuse, and being a very poor NFL quarterback. His record as a starter over two seasons was 2-6. He threw for seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. His reputation as someone unwilling to listen to coaches or teammates and uninterested in simply putting in the work, is an open secret. He is, by any objective measure, a team deficit: a distraction worth nobody’s time.
Kaepernick was on the cover of Time magazine and named to the Time 100 after a year of community service and social protest that influenced millions and expanded our ongoing national conversation about police violence. During a maelstrom of a season, where he lived under a barrage of death threats and constant media attacks, Kaepernick threw for 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, while also being the second leading rusher among NFL quarterbacks with the highest yards-per-carry average in the league. During his career, he has thrown for 72 touchdowns and 30 interceptions and led the 49ers within one play of a Super Bowl championship in 2013. His teammates swear by him. He might be a “distraction” for the right-wing sports-media frothers and NFL owners, but, when it comes to his teammates and coaches, you cannot find one person to say on the record that sharing a locker room with Colin Kaepernick has been anything but a positive. He is the photonegative of Johnny Manziel.
These are the facts: two quarterbacks. One is a dumpster fire who has polarized every locker room he has entered; the other is a role model, polarizing for everyone except the people who call him a teammate. One has had a train wreck of a career; the other has tasted glory.
Here’s another fact: One of these quarterbacks says he is getting calls and setting up meetings about returning to the NFL, and it’s not Colin Kaepernick.
During July’s National Fantasy Football Convention (that’s a thing), Johnny Manziel told Dallas Morning News reporter Jon Machota that he’s already had several discussions with NFL teams about returning to the league.
“I know the situation that I put myself in. I know the year I took off and obviously the mistakes that I made. Right now, I’m hopeful. I’m really hopeful,” Manziel said. “I think that I made some progress in that regard. But we’ll see. Whenever I get a call, I’ll do whatever I can to make the most of it.” Not “if” I get a call, but “whenever.”
Manziel is the Donald Trump Jr. of the NFL, and you can practically hear the owners reading that quote and believing Manziel to be their “good boy.”
This news immediately made the fact-based football writers—there are still a few out there—howl. Doug Farrar, the lead NFL scout for Bleacher Report, summed up my conversations with a series of them when he simply tweeted, “If [Manziel] gets signed before Kaepernick, I’m gonna lose my @#$%.”
We have moved so far beyond farce when it comes to the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, we might as well call it what it is: a political persecution.
As the interest in Manziel shows, every other half-assed excuse about Kaepernick’s credentials falls away. This league is ready to sign an attention-addicted, substance-abusing, egomaniacal head case who beats women and, by the way, has proven to no one that he can be an NFL quarterback. Yet Kaepernick is left out, denied work and an income because of his beliefs.
This is our generation’s version of the seizing of Paul Robeson’s passport or the stripping of Muhammad Ali’s title. It’s the denial of a very public black figure’s ability to earn because he dared do more than entertain. Robeson was isolated and suffered from depression as the movement he helped build fell away during the shameful period known as McCarthyism. Ali was also isolated, but the mass struggles of 1968 helped drag him out of his dark places and into the spotlight, haunting the sport that wouldn’t sanction his bouts. This is our moment. Demonstrate solidarity to Colin Kaepernick, even if it’s just sending him a supportive tweet. Stop giving the NFL your money. Show the owners of the NFL that their politics of shoving money into Donald Trump’s maw and caring about black lives as long as they are silent are not good enough. NFL owners, many of whom—like their president—have habits that would shame Caligula, see themselves in Johnny Manziel. Let them know that you see yourself in the character of Colin Kaepernick.