The National Football League holds itself up as the ultimate meritocracy. It’s one of the core values of “the shield.” If you can play, you are “the next man up.” This is both a central part of their branding and a handy justification when signing players who have been convicted of violent crimes, particularly against women. Again, it’s their corporate catechism: If you have the ability, there is always a second chance waiting for you on an NFL field.
That is why the sports story of 2017 was how many NFL teams chose to flush their seasons, screw their fan bases, and gut the local economies that had lavished them with taxpayer dollars rather than sign free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, Kaepernick threw for 16 touchdowns and had only four interceptions for a terrible 49ers team while leading the NFL in yards per carry. He also was given his team’s courage award after fully embracing community service, local organizing, and the tactics of political resistance, famously protesting police violence during the anthem. His coaches loved him. His teammates loved him.
NFL owners and executives, as well as the guy they bankrolled in the Oval Office to cut their taxes? Not so much.
At the start of the season when Kaepernick was unsigned, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it was just a matter of time before he found a home. He commented in September, “When teams have a need and teams feel like they can get better by a particular individual, whether they know the system, or whether they have more talent, or whatever it may be, that’s what they do. And I’m still convinced that he’ll get that opportunity when the right opportunity comes along. That’s what our league’s all about.”
No, it’s not, and the lost season of Kaepernick’s prime—as well as the abandoned seasons of several hopeful franchises—has proven this in brutal fashion.
Despite a desperate need for his services, these multibillion dollar corporate entities made the decision to tank rather than sign him to a contract. People have already lost their jobs as head coaches and general managers because they chose—or were ordered—to put awful or unprepared quarterbacks under center rather than field the best possible team.
The Houston Texans were 3–4, still in the hunt with a terrific defense and top skill players, but then they lost brilliant rookie dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson to a torn ACL on November 2. This would have been a prime landing spot for Kaepernick. The team instead chose to put in the overmatched Tom Savage and some other assorted backups and went 1–8 after Watson’s injury. Savage had a 71 quarterback rating. Last year, Kaepernick’s rating was 91.
The most news that the Texans made this year was when team owner and right-wing billionaire Bob McNair described protesting players as “inmates running the prison.” That’s their chosen legacy for 2017.