The San Francisco 49ers announced on Friday that the team has voted to give Colin Kaepernick the Len Eshmont Award, a prize given to the player who “best exemplifies the inspirational and courageous play of Len Eshmont—a Navy vet—an original member of the 1946 49ers team.”
This award does not get a great deal of publicity, but it is a big deal in 49ers land and the decision to award Kaepernick—who spent the year using the field as a staging ground to protest racism—speaks volumes. As Kaepernick said after the game:
“I think the thing, to me, that stood out was it was my teammates that voted on it. That really means a lot to me. I can’t express how grateful I am to have teammates like I did this year. They stood behind me regardless of any situation that went on, had a lot of great conversations in the locker room and I think even today in a situation where we have a lot of injuries, a lot of players that are new stepping on the field, we went out, we fought together and we stayed together to the very end and gave everything we had for each other. So, to me, that’s what stood out to me was that it was from my teammates and it really means a lot.”
The granting of this award to Kaepernick is particularly significant considering that early in the season GM Trent Baalke tried to feed a line to the press that Kaepernick was somehow dividing the locker room. Now Baalke is out of the job and Kaepernick has been honored by his teammates for his courage. What makes this extra delicious is that so much of the media tried to brand Kaepernick as “anti-military” for his anthem protests even though his actions had nothing to do with the military. Yet here are the players voting to give Kaepernick an award named after a World War II veteran. It shows they didn’t buy the hype.
I contacted longtime adviser to the 49ers and sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards about what he calls “the enduring and even expanding disconnect between the media and sports locker room”:
What has been a persistent mainstream sports media “drumbeat” of insistence that Kaepernick was alienating his team mates and destroying team unity has been proven a fabrication and a demonstrable fiction. That Kaepernick’s locker room is majority Black is less a factor here than the fact that the sports media is falling farther and farther behind in terms of their capability and competence to “read” this generation of athletes—Black, White, and otherwise, professional, and collegiate. The media were no more prepared to properly frame, chronicle, and communicate the dynamics and implications of the Kaepernick saga than they currently are regarding NFL-bound athletes exercising their prerogatives to bypass bowl games. And the fact that the sports media—and the sports establishment that it serves have not even begun to address the evident trajectory of the Kaepernick “movement”—and the growing support among athletes for its concerns—means that there are going to be some turbulent times in the upcoming Trump era as the pressure on athletes to stand up and speak out escalates. Kaepernick’s teammates were just positioning themselves on his side of this unavoidable struggle, on the right side of the issues and on the right side of history.
The support that Dr. Edwards witnessed was earned. Throughout the season, Kaepernick faced protesters, rabid fans, and death threats—and he still stood strong. His teammates saw him match his words with deeds, pledging ample funds towards organizations that work for racial justice and involving himself in community youth-education programs as well as speaking to high-school teams who were inspired by his protests to do their own forms of on-field dissent.
Kaepernick didn’t just stand strong off the field. Amidst a trolley-wreck of a season he overperformed relative to his team. After starting the season on the bench, he had a 90.7 quarterback rating, his best since 2012, and threw only four picks, completing just under 60 percent of his passes. He also led all quarterbacks—and all players with at least 50 carries—in rushing average, with 6.8 yards per carry. He finished second to Tyrod Taylor in total rushing yards for a quarterback, despite playing in three fewer games.
Kaepernick almost certainly will not be back with the 49ers next year, as they are in full-rebuild mode. But on the field, Kaep earned the right to compete for this job. And off the field, Bay Area fans buttressed Kaepernick’s political will to stay strong. The quarterback certainly understands that. After the last game of the season, he said:
“This fan base has been amazing. The support I’ve had, people backing me, standing behind me and saying how much they appreciate what I’m doing and what I’m trying to help others do. So, I can’t express how much I appreciate them because it’s been six years now and had a lot of good times with these fans. Some rough times as well, but they’ve always been there, they’ve always stood behind me, behind this organization and I appreciate that.”
Hopefully, he will get the opportunity to play in 2017, if that is his choice. We need his voice, and as an active player, his voice will have a much greater capacity to carry. But even if Colin Kaepernick does not play next season, there will be a prominent place for him in the struggles to come.