The most controversial player in the NFL, Colin Kaepernick, made his first start of the regular season Sunday against Buffalo, adding a new dimension to his captivating saga.
Kaepernick, whose quiet protest of the national anthem has been the story of the season so far, had a mediocre game, going 13 of 29 for 187 yards and one touchdown, while also running 8 times for 66 yards, as San Francisco got steamrolled by Buffalo, 45-16.
Up until Sunday’s game, Kaepernick had not taken a single meaningful snap during the regular season, yet because of his protest, he was the most talked about player in the league. With viewership for the 2016 NFL season lower than in previous years, many theories have been given about why the sport is less popular; one of which is that the league lacks star power. With Peyton Manning in retirement, Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of the regular season and Adrian Peterson and J.J. Watt put on IR, there certainly was a void to be filled.
Kaepernick has become the biggest name in the NFL; with the possible exception of Brady, no player currently has as much name recognition as Kaepernick and whether or not you are a football fan, chances are you have an opinion on him.
Outside of his protest, Kaepernick is not an overwhelmingly interesting character. While he achieved great success beginning in 2012 when Jim Harbaugh and the read-option offense flummoxed the NFL; by the end of 2014 the league and mostly figured out the read-option and without it, Kaepernick turned into a very average quarterback, eventually losing his starting job to Blaine Gabbert. Heading into the 2016 season, Kaepernick as a football player had about the same amount of interest as Geno Smith.
However, because his protest got so much play in mainstream news outlets and became a hot discussion topic, his name got thrust into the spotlight without having to throw a single meaningful pass. Casual or non-football fans may have remembered Kaepernick vaguely for his run to the Super Bowl in 2012, which probably aided his protest because at least most people had heard of Kaepernick even if he wasn’t generally thought of as a very good football player.
As any news outlet will tell you, Kaepernick’s protest has ruffled a few feathers. His comments, which mostly center on the mistreatment of people of color in the United States by law enforcement officers, are a part of a broader picture of race relations in America and boiling tensions between the African American community and law enforcement.
The topic has proven to be extremely divisive, and accordingly, some people consider Kaepernick a brave and courageous hero while others consider him a villainous traitor.
The fans in Buffalo, who have long been known for their rowdy behavior, were out in full force on Sunday, greeting Kaepernick with loud boos and cheering for his failings. Of course, one could say that the Buffalo fans were just booing an opposing quarterback, like they would to any other player who was going against the hometown team. But I’m not sure how many opposing quarterbacks would have a this sold outside of the stadium:
Kaepernick has never made his protest about football; his profession was merely an outlet for his protest to become noticed. Yet, the quality of his NFL performance is always going to be tied into his protest. For some fans who were opposed to Kaepernick’s protest, his struggles against Buffalo were some sort of justification against his opinion; that his playing ability somehow negatively impacted the merits of his argument against institutional racism.
Of course, that doesn’t make any sense; do you have to have a certain completion percentage for your opinion about social issues to be considered? If Kaepernick had thrown for 400 yards and five touchdowns, would people who were against him suddenly start thinking that he was making a good point? But alas, people who probably had no rooting interest in the game outside of a dislike of Kaepernick took solace in the fact that he did not play very well against Buffalo.
Fundamentally, Kaepernick’s quarterback play and the merits of his protest should not be intertwined, but because we live in a culture where we tend to listen to the most popular athletes, they will be. Muhammad Ali became an outspoken hero to the masses not just because he believed strongly in what he said, but also because he was a tremendous athlete. The same can be said for other famous athletes who became champions for social justice, like Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson. To his credit, Kaepernick said his post game press conference that he did not pay much attention to his detractors and only cared about playing football.
If Kaepernick plays well and begins to look like the guy who took the NFL by storm in 2012, the support for his protest will only grow along with his profile; if he fizzles out and loses his starting job, he will lose momentum and people will once again dismiss him as an inadequate football player trying to make a name for himself by kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner.
Whether it is fair or not, Kaepernick’s protest are directly tied to his ability to play quarterback; and now that he has in many ways become a symbol for many who feel that systematic racism is a big issue, he has even more pressure on his shoulders than the typical NFL quarterback.
For his sake, I hope he plays well because the more relevant his protest becomes, the more discussion can be had about the social issues he supports; and whether or not you personally agree with his opinion, it is important that society is aware of it.