San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s choice to not stand for the national anthem has saturated both sports and national media during the past week. Setting aside whether or not the starting quarterback in Super Bowl XLVII is “right” or “wrong” in his actions, the firestorm Kaepernick sparked has already had a tremendous impact on his future as a player and public figure.
But in today’s NFL, as well as today’s society, a person’s image is almost never set in stone. Kaepernick may be a pariah among many fans and within certain circles of NFL personnel, but that can change … even if Kaepernick doesn’t.
Kaepernick’s protest is barely a week old, and although it’s undoubtedly been the longest and most trying week of his career, the story itself is new and topical. The intense emotional outrage over his protest will slowly die down over time, especially if he continues to show his conviction by protesting each week.
Not only will the anger and resentment towards Kaepernick soften as time passes, but he should gain supporters and perhaps even win over those who initially disagreed with him. The more attention his protest garners, the more opportunities he — and his vocal supporters, especially those in the media — will have to make his case and bring attention to the issue of racism and injustice in the United States.
But that makes for a double-edged sword. The enormous focus on Kaepernick will offer him many opportunities to shed light on his cause, but just as many opportunities to stumble and waste the righteousness of his argument. He’s already done that by showing up to San Francisco 49ers practice last week wearing socks that featured pigs dressed as police officers.
Not only does that antagonize the people who disagree with him, but it does so in a childish, passive-aggressive, and completely useless manner. If he earnestly wants to promote better relationships between minorities and law enforcement, calling (or rather not-so-subtlety calling) police officers “pigs” is not a thoughtful, productive strategy.
The debate over whether or not a player is required (formally or informally) to stand for the national anthem is intricate and nuanced to begin with. But because Kaepernick’s place in the NFL is so unsettled, the situation is even murkier. He was never a truly great player, but he did take his team to a Super Bowl and was considered a franchise quarterback. Today, however, he is a second-stringer and due to injuries and inconsistency he was likely scheduled to be Blaine Gabbert’s backup even before this so-called scandal. Had a more entrenched, accomplished, even beloved player — Tom Brady or J.J. Watt or Larry Fitzgerald — attempted this social experiment, perhaps the results would have been different. Perhaps not.
For Brady or Watt or Fitzgerald, their ability to win over fans and “change the story” following a fine play or exceptional game would only earn their cause more (positive) attention. As of today, Kaepernick cannot do that. Gabbert is the starting quarterback heading into Week 1. Should Gabbert be injured or head coach Chip Kelly bench him for poor play, Kaepernick would most likely assume command. And that’s when the story would take its most intriguing turn.
Fans and the media will forget just about most anything in the face of wins and touchdowns. If Kaepernick comes in off the bench, leads San Francisco to a win over Seattle or pushes the 49ers towards a playoff run, a lot of people will be much more willing to listen to his thoughts on race relations and why he has chosen to sit during the national anthem. In short, the bigger the player, the bigger the platform.
Kaepernick is largely in uncharted territory for an NFL player, or even a sports celebrity. In the past, players whose images needed a massive overhaul had done something truly “wrong,” be it criminal or immoral. Michael Vick committed federal crimes for which he was proven guilty. Ben Roethlisberger and Adrian Peterson were accused of serious crimes. And although none of those superstars won back all or nearly all—or perhaps even any—of their former fans, they showed remorse and even served some form of punishment; federal prison for Vick, a month-long suspension for Roethlisberger, a 15-game suspension for Peterson.
Kaepernick will probably never be given any formal punishment by the 49ers or the NFL, and he certainly won’t apologize for his stance. So there doesn’t seem to be any resolution to this controversy. And that may well prove to be his real legacy for the quarterback-turned-activist. Rather than bringing about any change he simply started a discussion, one that will not be settled any time soon.