Professional athletes shouldn’t be activists.
Americans shouldn’t embrace their African heritage.
Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, has no time for such simplistic warnings. He has been revealing his multifaceted self ever since he decided to sit or kneel during the national anthem as a way to highlight police brutality and other injustices during the 2016 NFL season. To rephrase a JAY-Z lyric, Kaepernick did not just play in the NFL; he played the NFL by using his money and fame to address issues and individuals that are often criminally overlooked by the larger society.
Recently, Kaepernick visited the West African nation of Ghana, the former British colony where my parents were born and raised. On the Fourth of July, he tweeted a video of his trip and stated, “How can we truly celebrate independence on a day that intentionally robbed our ancestors of theirs? To find my independence I went home.”
On Instagram, Kaepernick posted the same video, quoted runaway slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and further described his time in Ghana. Kaepernick specifically stated:
“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?” - Frederick Douglass. In a quest to find my personal independence, I had to find out where my ancestors came from. I set out tracing my African ancestral roots, and it [led] me to Ghana. Upon finding out this information, I wanted to visit the sites responsible for myself (and many other Black folks in the African Diaspora) for being forced into the hells of the middle passage. I wanted to see a fraction of what they saw before reaching the point of no return. I spent time with the/my Ghanaian people, from visiting the local hospital in Keta and the village of Atito, to eating banku in the homes of local friends, and paying my respects to Kwame Nkrumah’s Memorial Park. I felt their love, and truly I hope that they felt mine in return.
NFL players do not usually make headlines during the summer, let alone athletes who are not currently on a team. But in early July, the unsigned Kaepernick was able to draw attention to America’s terrifying racial history, and also provide a subtle rebuttal to widespread stereotypes about the African continent. In particular, when African Americans criticize their country of birth (i.e., the young nation that their ancestors nourished with their uncompensated blood, sweat, tears, and even milk), a common comeback of the offended is “Go back to Africa,” as if stepping on African land is a death sentence and the mere prospect of it would force a reasonable black person to completely forget about American racism. By sharing details about his trip to Ghana (e.g., even just mentioning the name of an actual African country, explaining that there are places of physical and emotional healing in Ghana, and pointing out that there are human beings to talk with in homes on the continent instead of just things to save in the wilderness), Kaepernick essentially flipped the curse word of “Africa” into a blessing. And Kaepernick’s Afrocentric message was able to be broadcast to a much larger audience because of the influence that he has gained as an NFL player.
This all leads me to believe that Kaepernick has truly played the NFL. It concentrated on his speed and rocket arm, and did not realize until later on that he also wanted to run toward justice and throw his support behind oppressed people. While the NFL and its patrons underestimated Kaepernick’s interests outside of football, he was able to obtain the type of wealth and name recognition that his dehumanized ancestors never could have imagined. Because of the NFL, he now has the money and the platform to organize Know Your Rights Camps that empower youth, make substantial donations to social justice organizations, and publicly discuss enslaved American human capital on the nation’s Independence Day.
Kaepernick has apparently made NFL fans and sponsors of all types of racial and political backgrounds unwitting donors to anti-racist causes. He made them better private and corporate citizens than they ever knew they were. Some may boycott him now and even destroy the jerseys that they bought, but they still will not be able to burn the money that they gave him and he then used to fund initiatives that he actually cares about. With the financial support of his fellow Americans, Kaepernick has been able to go on pilgrimages and missions that focus on black people in the past and present, whether they are African slaves who were brutalized in castles or African Americans who see a police badge and are never quite sure whether the officer will be one of the many who honor the uniform or instead one of the individuals who fatally violate the privilege of serving the public.
Maybe this awareness of being played is why a person like Greg Hardy, who was convicted of assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend, and then had the charges questionably dropped, can be signed by the Dallas Cowboys (i.e., America’s team), but Kaepernick cannot even get a shot with a struggling team when all he did was put a spotlight on the fact that Lady Justice is not truly blind. His peaceful protest did not harm anybody, but, given the way that his NFL career has seemingly been left for dead, one would think that he was accused of beating every inch of the Statue of Liberty itself.
Of course, perhaps Kaepernick should not be mentioned in the same breath as Hardy at all because his offense—opposing police brutality and systemic inequalities overall—was televised. He could have done his misdeeds in private by secretly donating to social justice organizations, but he instead displayed his displeasure with the status quo under the watchful eye of the nation and the world as a whole.
The more apt, but still imperfect, comparison may be to Ray Rice. Rice’s act of domestic violence against his then-fiancée was immortalized on video for all to see, and he has not played in the NFL since the video came out. Likewise, although Kaepernick played last season, he has yet to be picked up by a new team in the long NFL offseason.
Since a number of NFL players took a knee or raised a fist in solidarity with Kaepernick, maybe the NFL is distancing itself from Kaepernick in order to teach a lesson to not just him and current NFL players, but also to young boys who may end up trying to play in the league one day. The owners may be trying to tell future superstar athletes, in particular, that they should not act out if they want to eventually get into, and remain, in the NFL.
Just think about it. Although some may try to explain Kaepernick’s ongoing unemployment by claiming that he is simply no longer the same player who led his team to the Super Bowl a few years ago, what would the excuse be if a Kaepernick-disciple with once-in-a-generation talent is passed over by all 32 teams in the 2025 NFL Draft? Nobody could possibly say that a lack of skill could be the reason in such a scenario. The NFL may thus be trying to avoid such an indefensible, and unprofitable, position by attempting to scare even athletic prodigies in middle school into never entertaining the thought of explicitly or implicitly addressing the Middle Passage of the slave trade or putting themselves in the middle of a national conversation about race in 21st-century America.
Although Kaepernick would love to still be playing in the NFL himself once 2025 comes along, it seems that he has no interest in holding back his beliefs in order to play football again. He is still willing to risk concussions and memory loss due to unnatural hits, but he just is not willing to let an NFL team make him forget about the running list of victims of police brutality. As dangerous as football is, with some former players even taking their own lives, Kaepernick is willing to deal with those physical threats as long as he does not have to give up his greater purpose in life in return.
Kaepernick is set for life financially and otherwise, so if he throws another NFL pass again, it will still be on his terms. In light of that, all I can say is well-played, Mr. Kaepernick. Well-played, indeed.