It’s strange to look back on it now, as the U.S. president scolds the NFL for a perceived lack of patriotism, but when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem first draw attention last year, the football world wasn’t impressed.
Everyone from superstar quarterback Drew Brees to Kaepernick’s old coach Jim Harbaugh to 49ers legend Jerry Rice clucked their tongues about his supposed disrespect for the flag. A report months after Kaepernick had opted into free agency claimed some team executives had come to “genuinely hate” him.
A year after that first protest, Kaepernick remains exiled from the league in what a growing pile of evidence suggests is a politically motivated blackballing. His absence loomed larger than ever across Sunday’s games, which were the first to follow Donald Trump’s harsh, misguided criticism of the NFL.
After two days of sometimes-profane attacks from the nation’s highest office aimed at high-profile black athletes, dozens of players and team staff followed Kaepernick’s lead. An early London game started things off, with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens both kneeling or linking arms during the pre-game national anthem. It was an act of protest that notably included Jags owner Shad Khan.
Even New England Patriots owner, a known supporter and personal friend of the president, expressed deep disappointment with the tone of Trump’s remarks, which encouraged owners to fire or suspend protesting players and exhorted fans to stage a boycott.
NFL: Releases flurry of statements voicing support for NFL players right to peacefully protest.
Also NFL: Colin Kaepernick, not employed.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 24, 2017
The shifted attitude toward Kaepernick’s once-controversial act of protest is partially a testament to Trump’s knack for escalating and inflaming culture battles to the point where even the most politics-averse institutions are forced to choose a side.
But it could also mark a shift in the media narrative around Kaepernick. As a particularly mediocre class of starter quarterbacks bumbled through the preseason, some league execs have engaged in a whisper campaign meant to sow the idea that Kaepernick’s unemployment is because he’s a distraction, he’s lost interest in football, he’s a vegan — anything but the explanation that teams refuse to hire an objectively better player for political reasons.
Those excuses have gotten embarrassingly threadbare. Even players who steer away from politics like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton have pointed out the league’s failure to live up to its supposed commitment to meritocracy.
“I think he should be on a roster right now. I think because of his protests, he’s not,” Rodgers told ESPN last month.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick has spent his unemployment finishing out a million-dollar pledge to dozens of grass-roots charity groups around the country and running civil rights education events for kids in disadvantaged areas. He’s also reportedly kept in shape for a professional-caliber job, and his jersey remains among the league’s top sellers.
The NFL has tried for years to keep its brand aggressively apolitical. The only views permissible to promote in association with its trademark shield are American institutions like Budweiser, McDonald’s, and the U.S. military.
That firewall started to crumble as domestic violence cover-ups and concussion scandals have come to plague the league’s reputation. Athletes across professional sports have also become more outspoken about social issues, and the NFL is no exception.
But more than anything else, this Sunday’s triumph of Kaepernick’s messages demonstrates how futile the NFL’s efforts to stave off politics have become.
Don’t be surprised if you hear reports of team owners giving him another look in the coming weeks.