For five years now, I’ve covered Colin Kaepernick’s exile from the National Football League. For five years, I’ve bayed at the moon about how the NFL chose to “blackball” a quality quarterback because he had the temerity to care enough to protest police violence during the national anthem. For five years, I’ve written about the terrible quarterbacks finding job after job while Kaepernick had his nose pressed up against the window. For five years, I’ve written about how Kaepernick has been training six days a week for a possible shot at returning, even when so-called experts said that day would never come.
Now, after five long seasons, it looks like Kaepernick is finally getting his shot—and I am having a difficult time trying to care. This should be the fairy-tale ending to the Kaepernick saga, or at least the ending of a central chapter. The team that looks willing to take a chance on the talented pariah is none other than the Las Vegas Raiders, an organization that, for 50 years, has adopted a kind of rebel image, moving from city to city and happily signing players with checkered pasts. This image and reality was fashioned by the late franchise owner Al Davis, and continues on with his son Mark. This is also a team that has spent the last year mired in scandal on numerous fronts, and wouldn’t mind changing the narrative. (Mark, like his father, is not exactly beloved in ownership circles, and one gets the feeling that this is way he likes it.)
Mark Davis floated a trial balloon in February when he said in an interview—in not exactly a subtle fashion :
I believe in Colin Kaepernick. He deserves every chance in the world to become a quarterback in the National Football League. I still stand by it. If our coaches and general manager want to bring him in, I would welcome him with open arms.
All of this adds up to the Raiders being an almost cinematic stopping point. The story could also mushroom. If Kaepernick makes the team after a five-year layoff, it could be an incredible indictment of the NFL for the time he lost, and, every week, it would put Kaepernick in the center of the league’s news cycle. And if the Raiders’ starter, Derek Carr, gets benched or hurt, and Kaepernick gets in the game, the sports world would stop spinning completely.
And yet, again, I’m finding it difficult to care. One reason for that is of course the massacres in Buffalo, Orange County, and Uvalde. It is difficult to feel much of anything in the face of such horrors beyond a weary sadness cut with jolts of outrage.
The other reason it’s difficult to care is that a whole lot of spin is coming, and it’s going to be backed by a billion-dollar media machine that critics could not begin to compete with. If Kaepernick does make the Raiders, watch it become woven into a narrative about how open the NFL has magically become. Watch the owners speak about how the league has evolved. Watch them say that this is proof that Kaepernick was never really blackballed, and that the very idea was an invention of the “woke” press. Watch them break their own arms patting themselves on the back. They’ll be shameless and hope that the public is too taken with the games that Sunday to even notice a real-time rewriting of the league’s own history. They’ll never say the truth: that beyond Mark Davis not really caring what the other franchise owners think, all it took for them to be all right with this was the largest demonstration in US history two summers ago. All it took was a national crisis and an ugly backlash for the league to finally blink.
It reminds me of how Major League Baseball reveres Jackie Robinson through a narrative that suggests that the league was on the right side of history, even if there were some random racist players. This ignores the fact that every team’s chief executive except for the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey voted not to integrate the sport. It also ignores the ways in which the other franchise owners drove the Negro Leagues into bankruptcy as they raided them for talent without compensation.
If Kaepernick signs, the NFL will do in one week what it has taken the MLB decades to accomplish: rewrite its role in its own history. What we need in the face of this is exposure of the past five years’ reality. But we also need the core belief that what we do actually matters. I believe this with all my heart, but, today at least, I’m not there. Good luck to Kaepernick, and well done to everyone who stood by his side. But please, hold the league accountable to the reality that it created—one where it stole a quarterback’s prime because he dared to give a damn.