Cool or Drool: 49ers Start Kaepernick Amidst Continued Protest

Dan Bisno, Columnist

The San Francisco 49ers lost four games with quarterback Blaine Gabbert at the helm before they decided to return Colin Kaepernick — the player at the center of one of the biggest political demonstrations in the recent history of American sports — to his starting quarterback position.

Just four years after winning the National Football Conference under Kaepernick’s leadership and barely losing in the Super Bowl, the 49ers currently sit at a tie for last place in the entire NFC with an embarrassing 1–6 record. This is largely due to Gabbert’s subpar performance early in the season, which left many fans wondering why Head Coach Chip Kelly waited so long to return Kaepernick.

At this point, you could have limited sports knowledge and probably still have heard of Colin Kaepernick, a former one-season wonder turned activist. Starting in the NFL’s August preseason, Kaepernick has been kneeling during the national anthem. His protest is, in his words, a refusal to stand “for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”

What gives this political statement more credibility and attention than last year’s NBA protest in which Lebron James and Kobe Bryant wore “I can’t breathe” shirts in response to the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD?

Perhaps Kaepernick’s actions have attracted more coverage because they have offended more people. Many consider kneeling during the national anthem an act of slander against the United States. Liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg commented, “I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning.”

Kaepernick and the many others that have joined him — in consultation with sociologist Harry Edwards, a key player in the Black Power salute of the 1968 Olympics games — are sending a jolt down the spines of people who prioritize football and a freedom-promoting anthem over the lives of Black people. Kaepernick has said time and time again, “Racism is disguised as patriotism.”

Some are more offended by Kaepernick kneeling during a patriotic act than by the pain and discrimination he feels from the systemic racial inequality in the United States.

NFL ratings have taken a plummet since last year: Sunday Night Football is down 19 percent, Thursday Night Football is down 18 percent, and Monday Night Football is down 24 percent. Many, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a Colorado rally last Sunday, have insinuated that the public’s negative response to protests by Kaepernick and others has turned viewers away. Regardless, the NFL, the 49ers and Kelly have all released statements with varying levels of support or approval of Kaepernick’s decision to kneel.

Still, it’s fair to ask if despite publicly supporting Kaepernick, was the 49ers’ front office still benching him because of his protests? Gabbert, a white quarterback, started with a bleak passer rating of 69.6, while posting 5.9 yards per attempt, last among NFL quarterbacks. Many have suggested that Kaepernick sat because the 49ers organization secretly disapproves of his actions and that certain players are not behind him as a leader.

Kaepernick, however, has made it very clear that he has a lot of respect for his coach. After Kelly gave an interview with TIME Magazine supporting his player, Kaepernick said, “The fact that he was willing to take a strong stand and say these things aren’t right — that’s huge coming from a head coach.”

If racism or behind-the-scenes punishment were not the cause for benching Kaepernick in the midst of a 1–4 start, then the other logical explanation is his contract. Currently, Kaepernick’s contract is locked in through the 2020 season. The contract’s real issue is a line that postulates that the 49ers must pay Kaepernick $14.5 million if he sustains an injury that causes him to fail a physical exam on April 1. While Kelly adamantly denies that the contract has played any role in the decision to not start Kaepernick, it seems likely that the front office would be wary of losing $14.5 million by starting a player after three recent surgeries. Kaepernick’s injuries last season under the same contract are responsible for his current $11.9-million guaranteed salary.

Recently, the 49ers announced that Kaepernick agreed to a contract re-structure that would remove the injured-salary guarantee and allow him to opt out of his contract after this season if he wishes to be traded.

With the new contract finalized, Kelly started Kaepernick in week six against the 3–2 Buffalo Bills. Coincidence? Probably not.

While more than 60 percent of NFL players are Black, management and ownership continue to remain largely white. Kaepernick’s protests are even more relevant in the context of the NFL — a league which profits off of the performance of Black bodies and the disposability of their health. Why did it take a contract re-structure to put one of the most prominent faces of Black Lives Matter, not to mention a successful, experienced quarterback, back on the field? Is Kelly truly the offensive genius that University of Oregon fans lauded him as?

Even though Kaepernick’s first two starts brought losses to the Buccaneers and the Bills, his bravery and passion for creating awareness and change about racial inequality in the national spotlight earns an enormous “cool.” With a little luck, the 49ers may defeat the 3–4 New Orleans Saints at home in week nine, and Kelly will realize that his suspicious decision to bench Kaepernick was ill-advised.