Home NFL Opinion: To make true progress, NFL needs to right its past wrongs against Colin Kaepernick – USA TODAY
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Opinion: To make true progress, NFL needs to right its past wrongs against Colin Kaepernick – USA TODAY

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Go ahead, Roger. Say his name. Colin Kaepernick.

For all of the soul-searching statements, declarations and reflections coming lately from the NFL universe – including Roger Goodell’s “we didn’t listen” video message last week – the elephant in the room hasn’t budged.

Rev. Al Sharpton said it so powerfully Tuesday while delivering the eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral.

“Don’t apologize. Give Colin Kaepernick a job back,” Sharpton said in response to Goodell’s video. “Don’t come with some empty apology. Take a man’s livelihood. Strip a man down of his talents. And four years later, when the whole world is marching, all of a sudden you go and do a FaceTime, talk about you sorry. Minimizing the value of our lives. You sorry? Then repay the damage you did you did to the career you stood down, ‘cause when Colin took a knee, he took it for the families in this building. And we don’t want an apology. We want him repaired.”

Yes, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, we need to go down this road again. So does the NFL.

Time, more tragic circumstances and the movement afoot have only emboldened Kaepernick’s original protest stemming from societal oppression and police brutality against African-Americans and people of color. Recent events have only further shamed the NFL for blackballing the quarterback with a Super Bowl start on his resume.

For Goodell to not even mention Kaepernick’s name during his mea culpa video moment? What an insult to our intelligence.

Sure, the NFL has engaged in responsive efforts since Kaepernick, as the 49ers’ starting quarterback in 2016, took a knee in protest during the national anthem. With African-Americans constituting more than 70% of its players, the league has pledged nearly $90 million to support social justice initiatives while collaborating with the Players Coalition.

Last week, Goodell amplified a “we didn’t listen” theme. Really? What about that historic meeting at NFL headquarters in 2017, following President Trump’s gaslighting, when a group of progressive players and team owners brainstormed responses?

It seems the NFL listened. It just didn’t go far enough to support one of its own – Kaepernick.

But there’s still time. Like now, when the chance-to-succeed meter tells us that a team adding Kaepernick before training camps open would be better than signing him after somebody gets hurt during the season, as it would allow time to absorb a new system.

Just for the record: Screw the narrative surmising that the social activism icon might not be interested in playing again. I asked him about that directly, shortly after the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in February.

“My desire to play football is still there,” Kaepernick told USA TODAY Sports. “I still train five days a week. I’m ready to go, I’m ready for a phone call, tryout, workout at any point in time. I’m still waiting on the owners and their partners to stop running from this situation. So, I hope I get a call this offseason. I’ll be looking forward to it.”

It’s not squarely on Goodell, the face of league operations and virtual shield to absorb hits that should be directed at NFL owners and other power brokers, to assign Kaepernick to a team. It’s still on the individual teams to provide an opportunity for Kaepernick (a few years ago, the Seahawks and Ravens seriously explored as much, but interest fizzled). The Commissioner, though, can still try to wield influence.

Apparently, as former NFL executive vice president Joe Lockhart wrote recently in a column for CNN, Goodell attempted some arm-twisting at some point on behalf of Kaepernick. It didn’t work. Kaepernick wound up settling a collusion case against the NFL in 2019.

It’s 2020 now and Kaepernick, 32, still deserves a job.

Yo, Bill Belichick. The Patriots coach declared in a video supporting the community work of his star safety, Devin McCourty, that he looks forward to “increasing my role” on social matters. Well, one way to make a major statement would be to bring Kaepernick to camp for a legitimate chance to win a job as this post-Tom Brady era unfolds Maybe it will help the team win.

That’s kind of how Belichick’s coaching hero, Paul Brown, saw it in 1946 when he signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis (who both went on to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) to help break pro football’s color barrier. Bold move. Bold results. AndPatriots history includes Belichick taking chances on some players perceived to be misfits for his system or potential distractions.

Hey, John Elway. The Broncos football chief, who posted a lengthy social media recently expressing newfound enlightenment about racism, tried to strike a deal to acquire Kaepernick in 2016, months before the quarterback started taking a knee. Since then, Elway has been turning over all sorts of stones to find a quarterback answer (maybe second-year pro Drew Lock will pan out, maybe not) but hasn’t looked Kaepernick’s way.

If Elway was interested before Kaepernick took a knee, you’d think that if it were purely a football decision, he would have circled back by now. Of course, it’s not solely about football. And Elway, who attended Trump’s inauguration, hasn’t always been shy in sending political signals. Connect the dots if you must.

Just don’t think Kaepernick would be too much of a distraction as a potential backup quarterback. Tim Tebow wasn’t too much of a buzz for the Broncos, Patriots and Jets to try rolling with.

The distraction reasoning is a convenient excuse, just like any contention that Kaepernick is too old too rusty.

This is what institutional racism looks like. Still. Kaepernick – never arrested or convicted for running afoul of the law – was punished by the NFL and deemed too toxic because he took a knee in protesting inequalities that flow through America’s DNA to the detriment of minorities.

Malcolm Jenkins knows. The Saints safety and co-founder of the Players Coalition the NFL’s efforts on social issues have continued to fall short because Kaepernick’s exile still looms large.

“I still don’t think they’ve gotten it right,” Jenkins said. “Until they apologize specifically to Colin Kaepernick, or assign him to a team, I don’t think they will end up on right side of history.”

Lockhart, in his CNN column, suggested that the Vikings – representing the area where Floyd was killed – could make a loud statement by signing Kaepernick. Minnesota has made a huge commitment to quarterback Kirk Cousins, but there’s no law that prevents a team from stockpiling talent – or from giving an opportunity because it would be the right thing to do.

It will take some organizational courage, much like the courage that Kaepernick took in risking his career for the sake of the oppressed.

And who knows? Maybe Kaepernick, with his foot back in the door, can parlay the opportunity into an even better chance down the road.

The words of Nelson Mandela, speaking about the oppressive apartheid system that was disbanded in South Africa, can also be applied to the NFL’s Kaepernick conundrum.

As Mandela put it, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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