We Don’t Talk About Colin
In pro sports, fans and pundits like to agonize over every ill-fated decision, every missed opportunity, every mistake. Football even has its own term, “Monday Morning Quarterback”, used to reference the way we obsess over what could have been done differently to avoid defeat. And when it comes to the Superbowl, teams that come close to winning it will spend an eternity having their every move pored over. For example, Seahawk fans are still haunted seven years after the fact by Pete Carroll’s decision to throw the ball from the 1 yard line instead of handing it to Marshawn Lynch. So why is no one talking about the obvious mistake made by 49ers management, which may have now cost them two Super Bowls, of pushing their chips in on Jimmy Garoppolo when they had a clearly superior QB available to them?
In the hit Disney movie, Encanto, the Madrigal family banishes their Tio Bruno and forbids anyone from speaking about him after he prophesizes that the family’s magic would come to an end. Because he can see the future, he makes for an easy scapegoat anytime something bad happens, and they decide they’d rather block him out then listen to the hard truths he was telling them about their future. In a similar vein, the NFL decided they didn’t want to hear the simple truths Colin Kaepernick was telling about American racism, so they banished him from the league. Like Bruno, Kaepernick’s statements about the country would proven true with time, and the attempts to silence him would do nothing to save the country or NFL from reckoning with racism. The country ended up electing Donald Trump, who publicly called for the NFL to banish Kaepernick, and used his platform to inflame racial tensions until they exploded in 2020 after the execution of George Floyd. Nearly every corporation would end up releasing an obligatory racial justice statement, with Roger Goodell being trotted out to say “We, the NFL, admit we were wrong fro not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe black lives matter.” It was an odd statement to make without mentioning Kaepernick or addressing the ongoing to decision to deny him employment, and the emptiness of their statement would be on display in the coming years. In 2021, the news story broke that the NFL had been engaging in a practice called “race norming”, where they assumed black players started out with lower cognition as a way of denying them payouts associated with dementia as a part of the concussion settlement. Then in 2022, Brian Flores, one of the NFL’s few black head coaches, would file a civil rights lawsuit against the NFL where he compared the league to a “plantation”. In Encanto, the family eventually recognized the error of their ways and welcoming Bruno back into their family, but there would be no Disney ending for Kaepernick and the NFL. The league has been resolute in its commitment to blackballing Kaepernick and maintaining its racist practices, and is clearly only interested in empty performative gestures that will help them avoid backlash as they continue to make an example out of the man who dared to use his platform as a star NFL QB to make bold statements about racial injustice. So while the NFL and its affiliated media continue their “we don’t talk about Colin” policy, let’s take a minute to talk about him.
In 2014, the 49ers signed Colin Kaepernick to a six year, 126 million dollar contract. They had used a high draft pick on him, and their investment had paid off handsomely. An injury to Alex Smith had forced him into the lineup, and he quickly emerged as one of the most dangerous dual threat QBs in the league, earning himself the starting job. In 2012 and 2013, he posted QB ratings of 98.3 and 91.6, and delivered prolific performances in the playoffs as he led the 49ers to a Superbowl and an NFC championship game, both of which they narrowly lost. It was an unprecedented level of success for a young QB, and the 49ers had every reason to think he would be the face of their franchise for a long time to come. But by the time Kaepernick was told he would be cut if he didn’t opt out of his contract in 2017, a lot had changed. A power struggle had ensued between owner Jed York and coach Jim Harbaugh, several key veterans retired, and the team went through an ugly rebuilding phase. It was a tough period for Kaepernick — his offensive line was in shambles, the team had a dearth of playmakers for him to get the ball to, and he was playing through injuries while trying to adapt to a new coaching staff. As young quarterbacks often do, he struggled. Legitimate questions began to surface about his development as a passer, and if he was going to become the elite quarterback many thought he would become after the blistering start to his career. But as rough as those three years were, there was nothing on the field that indicated Kaepernick was not at least a competent starting NFL QB. In fact, after sitting out the first half of the 2016 season to nurse his injuries, he came back looking rejuvenated. In spite of how bad the team was that season, he managed to post a 90.7 QB rating and a 16/4 TD/INT ratio. This should have been an encouraging sign for the 49ers that their franchise QB was getting himself back on track, but the 49ers moved on from Kaepernick after his best season in 3 years, a decision that clearly had nothing to do with football.
It’s important to put all this into context because defenders of the NFL have tried to spin this every which way to avoid admitting the obvious truth — that all the owners conspired to blackball Kaepernick from the league because they felt he needed to be made an example of. The first argument we often hear is that Kaepernick is not in the league simply because he is not good enough. It’s important to understand that there has never in the history of the league been a young QB with Kaepernick’s talent and early success level who had a couple rough seasons and never got another chance to start. There are in fact many QBs who have never led their team to the playoffs, and didn’t possess Kaepernick’s rocket arm or gazzelle-like running ability, who have gotten one chance after another to start because there is such a dearth of quality quarterbacks in the NFL. Even some of the greatest quarterbacks ever have gone through periods of struggle early in their careers — think Peyton Manning throwing 23 interceptions in his fourth season, or Drew Brees throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in his third season. There is simply no merit to the argument that Kaepernick was nothing more than his worst seasons, when he obviously had many factors working against him. Any evaluation of Kaepernick as a player must take in the totality of his abbreviated career — he ranks in the top 10 all time in TD/INT ratio, and ranks 23rd all time in playoff QB rating (right ahead of Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre, Steve Young, Phillip Rivers, and Warren Moon). He still holds the single game playoff record for rushing yards by a QB by a wide margin, and has 3 of the top 8 games ever in that category. Even during his worst seasons, there was never much question that he was at least good enough to start for roughly half of the teams in the league. But we were ultimately denied the chance to see what Kaepernick would have made of himself. Perhaps he was never going to become a great passer, and would have simply spent his career being an effective game manager who avoided turnovers and made enough plays with his feet to keep his team competitive. Or perhaps with a few seasons under the right tutelage, he could have improved his mechanics to become a more accurate passer, become more adept at reading defenses, looking off lurking safeties, and audibling at the line of scrimmage. Given that his work ethic was never in question — Hall of Fame QB and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warned trained with Kaepernick during the 2015 offseason and said afterwards “What I love first and foremost is Colin’s working hard, putting in the time, and wants to get better and better at his craft” — it’s reasonable to assume he would have at least shown some improvement as a passer. And if he ever were to put it all together, he was talented enough to become one of the game’s best quarterbacks. We’ll simply never know how his career would have gone, but the idea that the reason it came to an end had anything to do with football is entirely laughable.
Given that no one can actually in good faith maintain the argument that Kaepernick was not good enough to play in the NFL, people looking for reasons to justify his unemployment fall back on a litany of other reasons. Some say he is a locker room cancer, and simply too big of a distraction for a team to win. This is a curious statement considering that the Kaepernick’s teammates voted to give him the prestigious Len Eshmont award (given to the player who best exemplifies Eshmont’s inspirational and courageous play) during the season that he protested. Left Tackle Joe Staley would say “I feel the locker room is really close. I don’t feel any of that division people from the outside are saying at all”, and like the professional he is, Kaepernick stated “When I step into this building my focus is football and what I have to do to try to win and try to help this team win and I think our players, our coaches all have that same mentality”. All of Kaepernick’s teammates obviously didn’t share his political views, and yet they all respected the way he went about his business. As for the idea that a team can’t win while dealing with the distraction of protesting players, the Eagles would win a Super Bowl in 2018 while multiple key players on the team (Michael Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long) carried on Kaepernick’s anthem protest. We can also look back at history and realize that some of the greatest sport figures ever, such as Jim Brown, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Muhammad Ali, all engaged in controversial protests while winning championships and making historic athletic achievements.
Some say Kaepernick doesn’t want to play football, and would prefer to be a martyr. This is an outrageous statement considering how hard Kaepernick had to work to make it to the NFL, and the tens of millions of dollars he stands to make if he ever makes it back to the NFL. It’s also important to keep in mind that Kaepernick spent his life dreaming of becoming a quarterback. He was a three sport star in high school, and many MLB teams wanted to draft him right out of high school, but he turned down those lucrative offers to pursue football despite the fact that he didn’t even have a scholarship offer on the table. The racist idea that black people lacked the mental abilities necessary to play the quarterback position had made things hard for Kaepernick, but he refused to switch positions, and was adamant that he was a quarterback. This is all evidence of how strong willed Kaepernick is, something that would be on display again when he refused to stop his protests even when it became apparent it could cost him his NFL career. But that doesn’t mean he gave up on his dream of making a return. In fact, his will to return has kept him waking up at 5am to train 5–6 days a week to keep himself ready in case a team gives him a call. The videos he posted of himself training and looking in top shape were generating so much bad PR for the NFL that they tried to stage a fake tryout for him in an attempt to get rid of their Colin Kaepernick problem. Kaepernick immediately responded that he was ready to audition, but as negotiations over the conditions of the workout proceeded, it became clear to Kaepernick’s camp that the NFL was acting in bad faith. They would not allow Kaepernick to throw to the receivers he trains with, and most importantly they were not going to allow the press to attend the workout, meaning they would have sole control over the footage of the workout, and could selectively release clips of Kaepernick’s missed throws and edit out his best throws. Veteran players usually only work out for individual teams interested in signing them, and auditions of this sort are normally only held for players entering the draft. The entire episode was highly unusual and was an obviously telegraphed move by the NFL to sandbag Kaepernick, so he decided to hold his own workout and invited the media and any interested NFL representatives to come watch. He looked great — his passes were crisp, he hit his receivers in stride on deep balls, and he looked as lean and muscular as ever. But he was defiant, telling the NFL to “stop hiding”, and proclaiming that he was ready to interview and workout for any team, any time. So the spin doctors went to work, saying that his attitude and lack of cooperativeness was evidence that he wasn’t serious about playing football. Sports propagandists like Stephen A Smith, who is notorious for falsely claiming to have “inside information”, reported that he knew the workout offer was made in good faith, and pretended to be sympathetic to Kaepernick while “regretfully” concluding that he didn’t actually want to play football.
As pathetic as the whole stunt was, it kind of worked. The headline was that Colin Kaepernick refused to workout for the NFL, and most people didn’t dig much deeper. But Kaepernick had proved that he had stayed in shape and could still throw a football quite well, dispelling another one of the talking points that had been used against him. Teams regularly attempt to coax quarterbacks out of retirement when their starter gets injured, and they are usually not still in their athletic primes like Kaepernick, so it is hard to understand why their would be so much concern that Kaepernick would be rusty. Considering the physical toll the game of football takes on the body, it could even be argued that he will come back with fresh legs and play the best football of his career. Michael Vick, for example, had his best season after sitting out two seasons while serving a prison sentence for dog fighting, and he didn’t have access to top notch training facilities and healthy food while away from the game. The fact that Michael Vick was able to make a return after his disturbing crimes came to light also underscores just how much the NFL is willing to put up with from talented players. Lesser players than Kaepernick have been able to return to the NFL after literally killing someone driving drunk, and numerous players have continued their careers after terrible domestic violence incidents and sexual assault accusations. It’s well known that NFL owners care more about winning and making money than applying any kind of moral standard to who they employ, but that rule doesn’t seem to apply to Kaepernick. It has been argued that owners don’t want to touch him because he’s bad for business, but considering that Kaepernick led the NFL in jersey sales after he began his protest, any team that signs him would gain an influx of fans. What seems apparent is that Colin Kaepernick showed us the rare ideological commitment that comes before winning and money for NFL owners — white supremacy. Kaepernick used their product to directly challenge white supremacy, sparking a generation of athlete activism, and they would never forgive him for it. And they were steadfast in their commitment to punishing Kaepernick. Over the years, a number of teams who were in the playoff hunt when their QB got hurt have essentially chosen to forfeit their season rather than give Kaepernick a shot, instead opting to roll with quarterbacks who have never done anything but lose at the NFL level.
This brings the conversation back to the 49ers, who have seen their super bowl aspirations dashed for the second time in 3 years because they had a quarterback who can’t create offense against playoff level defense. Credit must be given for the remarkable rebuild the 49ers pulled off. After Patrick Willis’ abrupt retirement the team drafted Fred Warner, who quickly became one of the game’s top inside linebackers. The team lost edge rushers Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, but didn’t let Nick Bosa’s controversial right-wing political views scare them from drafting him, and he quickly became one of the league’s top sack artists. Deebo Samuel, a second round draft pick, has now developed into one of the league’s premier playmaking wideouts. George Kittle, a 5th round draft pick, replaced Vernon Davis as a go-to receiving tight end. The offensive line was rebuilt, and the team got back to having a dominant running game. The only thing missing is a quarterback. The 49ers had hoped they’d found their man in Jimmy Garoppolo, who they traded for shortly after cutting ties with Kaepernick, and then rewarded with a $137 million contract based on half a season of strong play. But when it came time for Garoppolo to earn his money in the playoffs, he couldn’t produce much of any offense. During the 49ers’ first Super Bowl run, Garoppolo threw for just 208 yards and 1 touchdown over their first 2 games, but the defense and run game carried the team to wins. In the Super Bowl, the defense and run game both were strong, but going up against MVP Patrick Mahomes, the team needed Garoppolo to give them a little something. Garoppolo responded with the worst 4th quarter performance for a QB in Super Bowl history — in four possessions, he went 3–11 for 36 yards, with a 4th down sack and a game-sealing interception.
The 49ers could have pulled the plug on the Jimmy G experiment then. Colin Kaepernick was still a free agent. He was already familiar with many of the players in the locker room, and it would have cost them practically nothing to bring him on and let him compete for the quarterback job. Instead, they stuck with Garoppolo, betting that he would be able to show them something more next time in the playoffs. This year, they would travel to Lambeau to face the Packers in the second round of the playoffs, the stadium where Kaepernick once outdueled Aaron Rodgers and set a playoff record by rushing for 181 yards, passing for 263, and scoring two TDs. Garoppolo wouldn’t need to do outduel Rodgers this time around, as the defense limited the back-to-back MVP to just 10 points. But Garoppolo couldn’t muster any offense whatsoever, throwing for just 131 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. The 49ers offense would ultimately be outscored by their special teams unit, who came up with a blocked punt TD late in the fourth quarter to save the game. The team would try to lift Garoppolo up again in the next game, with Deebo Samuel catching a first quarter screen pass and breaking several tackles to score a long TD and get the 49ers on the board early. Garropolo wasn’t providing much scoring, but the defense kept them ahead for most of the game. When Matthew Stafford finally started rolling in the fourth quarter, Jimmy G couldn’t even put a drive together to slow the momentum and give his defense a breather. His fourth quarter stats ended up looking eerily similar to his Super Bowl performance — 3 possessions, 0 points, 3/9, 33 yards, and a defeat-sealing interception. With the Rams going on to win the Super Bowl, we can only be left to wonder what this team could have accomplished with Colin Kaepernick at the helm. It’s certainly hard to picture him not making at least enough plays to put them over the top in these losses.
After the 49ers’ exit, there has been near unanimous agreement amongst sports pundits that the Jimmy G era in San Francisco has come to an end. But nowhere in the conversation about the 49ers’ QB situation do you hear the name Colin Kaepernick. No one mentions that the 49ers made a mistake in going with Garoppolo over Kaepernick, and no one mentions the possibility of signing him now. It is now being assumed that the 49ers will insert rookie Trey Lance as the starter, and deal with all the growing pains that come along with it. Given that they are in the middle of a Super Bowl window, you’d think they’d be interested in a veteran QB with Super Bowl experience who could be had for a cheap price, but the NFL world just proceeds as if Colin Kaepernick does not exist.
But whether anyone would acknowledge it or not, the ghost of Colin Kaepernick hung over Super Bowl LVI. At halftime of a game that could have seen him lift the Lombardi trophy had he not been blackballed, the nation watched a rap performance that was the result of the NFL’s PR campaign to appear less racist after blackballing Kaepernick. After Eminem used the moment to take a knee in an ode to Kaepernick, the NFL claimed they knew he planned on doing it and had signed off on it. They could easily be lying just to maintain the appearance of being in control, but the truth is the NFL is at this point okay with kneeling so long as nobody mentions Kaepernick or asks why he isn’t still playing.
But no matter how hard the NFL tries not to talk about Colin, they will not be able to avoid the consequences of their racism. Whatever happens with Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the league, he will probably never get another head coaching job. Countless lesser coaches will get jobs over Flores — who won 8 of his last 9 games before being fired and denied any other head coaching position — and the NFL will do its best to make sure no one speaks his name either. But like the Madrigals, the NFL is a crumbling house, and ignoring the cracks while not talking about Bruno or Colin won’t change that. Football is ultimately a sport that causes severe brain damage, which is played by mostly black players in a league where the owners, GMs and head coaches are almost exclusively white. They say sports is a microcosm of society, and the racist structure of the NFL is mirrored by the racist structure of American society. The police that Kaepernick sacrificed his career to protest are tasked with enforcing that racist structure, and the owners decision to punish Kaepernick reflected their belief that the racist, exploitative way both their league and their country is set up ought not to be questioned. Kaepernick has continued to grow as a person during his exile from football, reading, writing, evolving his politics, doing work with his foundation, and reflecting on his own life experiences. It is this ability to learn and grow that led him to beginning his protest, and it will help him accomplish great things in life whether or not he gets another shot at football. The NFL owners and the reactionary leaders of our country do the opposite, violently lashing out at anyone who challenges them to reflect and grow. The 49ers possibly cost themselves two Superbowls, the accomplishment they have devoted them to achieving, because of this. And so long as NFL owners and the people in power in the US insist upon this approach, they will never come close to achieving the greatness they claim to be striving for.