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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tré Watkins

Kaepernick vs. The People

Nothing went as planned last weekend as Colin Kaepernick worked out in front of NFL personnel for the first time in three years at Charles Drew HS in Riverdale, GA. This was a last-minute change from the original League-sanctioned workout scheduled at the Falcons facility.

Some have painted this as a victory for Kaepernick, arguing that by refusing to capitulate to the NFL’s unusual tactics, he took control of the narrative and proved what he has been saying for three years: that he’s ready to play professional football.

However, there has been no shortage of detractors who make the case that if playing football was his primary goal, Kaepernick should do whatever it takes to get back on the field. Even if that means putting himself at risk of being manipulated by the league.

Unfortunately, with their eyes set on each other, each side is left to fight on a new front while the NFL is largely unscathed. 

The most notable and loudest critic of Kaepernick has been the host of First Take, ESPN’s new 10-million-dollar man, Stephan A. Smith. 

Shortly after the workout concluded, Stephen A. took to his Twitter account to voice his opinions on the matter:

“He don’t wanna play, he wants to be a martyr” Stephen A. voiced while shaking his head, he continued, “all of us believed that Colin Kaepernick would’ve showed out. And if he had showed out, I’m here to tell you, he would’ve had a job inside of two weeks.”

The disappointment in Stephen A.’s mannerisms and inflections is palpable. If we are to believe that this disappointment is sincere and not contrived simply to stir up ratings, this points to a familiar tale in the history of the Black athlete and the fight for civil rights. As Professor Louis Moore points out:

According to this line of thought, sports have opened doors for Black individuals and the Black community. This impact has not been limited to job and wealth creation but the idea that Black people – if given a fair shot – can earn their way to full citizenship in the eyes of White America. Any struggles or obstacles that happen along the way are inconsequential. They must be put aside for the greater good because if the trailblazer is anything less than extraordinary, the door will shut behind them. In other words, for Black people to be entirely accepted into society, then Black athletes need to shut up and play.

However, supporters of Kaepernick have always viewed this as a man’s struggle against a large, oppressive institution. Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, who, along with Kaepernick, won a lawsuit against the NFL for their role in keeping both players out of the league, responded to Stephen A. via Twitter:

Reid used his 120 characters to reinforce the position that Kaepernick is well within his right to distrust any actions of the same league that ostracized him. 

But the image of a tap-dancing Daffy Duck, reminiscent of the infamous Jim Crow character meant to depict a Black person entertaining for the pleasures of a White audience, clearly touched a nerve as Stephen A. admittedly pulled over on the side of the road to launch into a Twitter tirade denouncing Reid as “childish” and the “enemy.”

Thus, the saga that has played out mostly in public for the past three years has officially redrawn the battle lines. Famed scholar W.E.B Dubois framed the battle as one of double consciousness, or the idea that Black folks must view themselves through two lenses: their own and through the White world. Du Bois wrote, “One ever feels his twoness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” 

Author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of racist ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “the duel within Black consciousness is usually between antiracist and assimilationist ideas”. As Kendi explains, assimilationists tend to have a strong belief in self-reliance, while antiracists value challenging oppressive systems. 

Assimilationist ideas can be attributed to moderate leaders such as President Barack Obama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Booker T. Washington. Antiracist ideas align with the thinking of Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X., and W.E.B Dubois. It’s clear to see who belongs to which side. 

By calling Reid the “enemy” Stephen A. recognizes that these two ideas cannot simultaneously manifest the type of success both sides desperately want. Kaepernick can’t “control the narrative” and “shut up and play.” Just as Malcolm X’s “eye for an eye” didn’t coexist with Dr. King’s non-violent approach.

Not only does each side view the others’ strategy as a recipe for failure, but they also view the opposition as a direct threat to the success of their cause. Each insult, critique, and slight now becomes an attack against both the individual and the goal. This is the problem with wars of ideas: the only way of proving which is correct is to disprove the other. Instead of focusing energy on defeating the common enemy, these attacks are now directed at each other, letting the Big Bad Wolf NFL off the hook.

As of this writing, the abuse from both sides has permeated television, radio, and social media without a sign of slowing, and  Colin Kaepernick – despite proving to have still the elite arm that led his team to a Super Bowl – is still unemployed.

Yet the discussion on who is right and who is playing will continue with great zeal. Both sides aim at the opposition, which notably doesn’t include the only party found guilty of wrongdoing in this whole matter: the NFL.

Towards the end of their lives, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. drew closer to one another, recognizing that neither had a complete vision and that finding common ground was more important for the cause.

Despite their diverging methods, Colin Kaepernick and Stephen A. Smith share a similar goal of ensuring Black people have the opportunity for social mobility and equality. Hopefully, like Malcolm and Martin, they can fuse their strategies to find a winning pathway forward.

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