Anything that involves Colin Kaepernick sends GOP officials and their alt-right trolls into a frenzy. Anything that involves speaking about the historical US system of chattel slavery and reminds people of its institutional dehumanization is now immediately grouped under the umbrella of “critical race theory” and makes these same people froth at the mouth. Therefore, it should surprise no one that a clip of Colin Kaepernick comparing the NFL draft combine to a slave auction has sent right-wingers into a rage.
The clip is part of the Netflix show Colin in Black and White. And, frankly, this comparison by Kaepernick is nothing new, even if the level and volume of outrage is. At the NFL Scouting Combine, athletes, who are overwhelmingly Black, are physically handled by coaches and executives, who are overwhelmingly white, to see if they are worthy to play in the NFL. Their speed, strength, and body parts are measured. They are asked all manner of questions about their personal lives, their pasts, their parents, and even their sexuality. They stand in their underwear to be peered over like an object to be bought and sold. NFL player Michael Bennett wrote the following in his 2018 book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable (which I coauthored):
I thought it would be like a job interview with a Fortune 500 company, but then I walked into a room filled with a lot of older men. They gawked at me in a way I’d never been stared at in my life. I finally knew what it felt like to be objectified, the way so many women are. It was also clearly on me to impress them, to act like I was cool with the poking and prodding. I felt like they were Kardashians and I was an NBA starting center.
The best word for it is “awkward.” I wish it had been awkward for everyone, not just the players. They should make the scouts sit there in their tighty whities and boxer shorts so we’re all on the same level. Someone actually picked up my leg and measured my thigh. I was like, “Excuse me? Keep your eyes up here, sir.” I thought, Damn, am I a piece of meat? Are they going to chop me up like cattle and sell me by the pound? It reminded me of descriptions I’d read of slave auctions. People don’t like to associate slavery with sports because of the money we’re paid. But when you are made to feel as if you are property, and having grown men lift your arms to check your armpits, I don’t really know what other comparison comes close.
Bennett wasn’t the first athlete, either, to make this comparison. Former NFL player Anthony Prior wrote about it in his 2006 book The Slave Side of Sunday, and it has been an open discussion among Black players for years. The combine is a setting meant to lay out just exactly who has power and who does not. It’s about sending a message: This is not a “player’s league.” It’s a league with non-guaranteed contracts where an average career lasts only three and a half years. It is a league with a 100 percent injury rate where any play might be your last. It is a league that wants the players to know “you are disposable.” Or, as Michael Bennett and his brother, former NFL player Martellus Bennett, said wryly to each other, “NFL stands for N____ For Lease.”
What Colin Kaepernick is saying is not new. What is new is the level of outrage. What is new is this current reactionary wave that threatens to outlaw the teaching of anything that speaks to the history of the brutalization of slavery or the ways that systems of racism continue to this day. Republican-run states across the land have found their issue du jour for scaring white parents, and it’s the scant anti-racist curriculums in our system of public education. Their rallying cry is that white children must never be made to feel uncomfortable, and if that means banning Toni Morrison, then so be it. It is a revanchist magic bullet aimed at stoking white resentment, attacking public education, and sacrificing the careers of public school teachers who are pledging to teach the truth.
I never thought yesterday that picking up my dog-eared copy of Beloved and reading it at a Northern Virginia coffee shop would count as an “act of resistance,” but here we are. I do know that here in Virginia and across the country there are a metric ton of people, including many that either have chosen not to vote or are under 18, who are going to turn the lives of the Toni Morrison book–burners on their heads as they demand accountability for the past, present, and future. For my new book The Kaepernick Effect, I interviewed dozens upon dozens of these young folks who protested during the anthem at sporting events and later during the 2020 demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd. I can tell you that they are not willing to settle for what their parents and grandparents were willing to accept. They also will not settle for the thin gruel of the Terry McAuliffes of this world. I have doubts that the Democratic Party, with its inability to deliver even basic reforms, is equipped politically to welcome these voters and add them to their ranks. That means the future is not going to be defined by fights between Dems and Reps but by movements of people outside the electoral arena towards progress or reaction. Kaepernick’s statement about the NFL and slavery—and the fits of reaction it has caused—is just a microcosm: a canary in the coal mine for the battles that are not merely yet to come. They’re clearly already here.