NFL Culture & Kaepernick

While many sports are similar in structure, each has an elements that many individually unique. While player mobility is a feature of the NBA’s off-season with the draft and free agency. Stories involving the NFL lag behind in terms of their ability to generate interest. With kick-off two months away the future play of the Cowboys and longevity of QB Tom Brady is fascinating to examine but have not generated more buzz. Meanwhile, former 49ers quarterback and current free agent Colin Kaepernick has been the most intriguing story of the off-season.

Since last season Kaepernick has gained more attention for his actions off the field. Kaepernick became a target by those within and outside the sport for initially sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem before games. The criticism of Kaepernick grew after he publicly voiced his frustrations with America’s social, economical and legal treatment of Blacks. The overwhelming praise from the Black community was counteracted by the condemnation he and more importantly his cause received from the general public.

Kaepernick’s record as a starter is  32-32 but he is also among the 12 QBs to start a Superbowl game this decade. This off-season a host of non-effective backups have been signed such as Josh McCown, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon. As a starter each holds a sub .500 record has yet to show the ability to become a serviceable starter in the league. Though Kaepernick was 2-11 this past season he has shown the rare ability to be a competent but also a dynamic player that carves defenses up.

Despite his success he remains without a job for numerous reasons, chief among them the structure and culture of the NFL. As previously written, the NFL gains popularity and profits from the collection teams, regardless of markets. While other sports rely on large market teams such as the Yankees, Lakers and Knicks to be successful, for the NFL it is a luxury. Though the NFL has gained a boost from the Cowboys recent success; there other most popular teams are from smaller markets such as Pittsburgh and Green Bay. The NFL also breaks from other leagues – most notably the NBA – in that it does not require starts to be profitable. The NBA’s history and most bankable times have been tied to star players from Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. For the NFL the constant threat of injury and slogan “next man up” has made virtually every player outside of quarterback expendable. Though Kaepernick has shown flashes of brilliance, his recent string of performances put him in an uncomfortable place most are in, with the constant threat of losing work.

The league’s thin tolerance for outspoken personalities has also played against against Kaepernick. Forthright players such as Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman and Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall have been ridiculed by coaches and traded multiple times. The leagues hesitancy towards these players coupled with its individual markets and demographics have made Kaepernicks ability to get signed even harder. While the NBA’s core fan base is geographically diverse concentrated in cities like New York, Chicago and Baltimore. The NFL’s base is in the south and consists of more rural and older men. Differences in viewership can be easily seen in the commercials aired during games. While the NBA features Mountain Dew and State Farm Auto Insurance; the NFL advertises Budweiser and Wrangler Jeans. The NFL also has more teams in cities which will not be as open to Kaepernick’s off-field advocacy. The addition of Kaepernick to conservative markets such as Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Nashville may play negatively to local fan bases.

Frequently we are unable to accept differing narratives within the same concept. In the past I have been critical of Kaepernick for taking what I believed were contradictory actions towards his cause. However, believing that I can also feel he has been unfairly ignored due to his stance on racial issues. The leagues opposition to frank players and the individuals owners fear of angering their fans has left Kaepernick for hire. If Kaepernick goes unsigned he will join a list of athletes who risked their careers for their belief (see Muhammad Ali piece). If Kaepernick were in the NBA it is not a wild thought to think he would find work. The NFL’s culture acts in a unique and rigid fashion. Kaepernick’s actions are a fascinating case of how the league can often alienate its own, even if they have honest intentions.

 

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