Some people couldn’t get their heads around Colin Kaepernick’s protest last fall. To many white fans, Kaepernick was living proof that there wasn’t a race problem in football or in America. A black man—with visible tattoos, no less!—succeeding as an NFL quarterback was proof of how tolerant we all were. Instead of expressing his dissatisfaction, he should have been thanking the league, the fans, and America for his fame and fortune.
What’s ironic is that Kaepernick’s situation encapsulates precisely the problem his critics insist doesn’t exist. The forces that he was protesting were always there, but because fans couldn’t see how they affected him, they determined that he just enjoyed whining. Hardly anyone argues that racism has been eradicated from our society, but Kaepernick struck a nerve when he posited that systemic racism still pervades American institutions. Now, an invisible system is working against him, and it goes by the same name as the forces he was calling out in the first place: institutional racism.
Institutional racism is a tricky concept for a lot of people, particularly when it comes to sports, because individual instances of racism are what grab headlines. The powers that be are quick to condemn players for using racial slurs, for example, or to banish those whose racism becomes public. Apologies are made and accepted, resignations are handed in, and the immediate race problem has been solved. There are countless stories of athletes of color who have, whether out of genuine forgiveness or lack of a sensible alternative, accepted the apologies of a colleague or fan for a racist incident and moved on for the good of the game.
It’s much more difficult to detect institutional racism, but a league shouldn’t get a free pass just because it condemns those members whose racism cannot be ignored. Institutional racism is about quiet, pervasive discrimination in the attitude of an institution. Let us examine the prevailing attitude of the NFL when it comes to Kaepernick.
Kaepernick may have peaked early, but he is a gifted quarterback in a league that could use about ten more gifted quarterbacks. The case can and has been made that he is better than several of the 32 QB’s predicted to start next season. He’s certainly better than many of the other free agent playcallers who have been signed this offseason. Even if he doesn’t deserve to start, few teams have a better backup, particularly considering that Kaepernick’s ground game would provide many offenses with an entirely new dimension. Personally, I think even teams with an established starter could benefit from periodically playing him, but that’s a different column. Point is, he’s more than deserving of a spot on a roster, somewhere.
It’s common knowledge that NFL teams don’t really shy away from players with “baggage.” Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, and Johnny Manziel have all received second and even third chances after failing, dramatically and publicly, to live up to expectations. Kaepernick, a Super Bowl veteran, would be less of a risk than those players in many ways, but there’s one thing that makes him riskiest of all: if the NFL continues to give him the platform, he may continue to call attention to the problems faced by racial minorities in America.
If an owner came out and said he didn’t want an outspoken black man on his team, that would be case closed. In reality, nobody has to say it. It’s even theoretically possible that no single owner has thought that. What’s clear is that the NFL’s leadership, collectively, fears the conversation Kaepernick has started and would prefer that it cease.
The blame does not rest solely with one owner or general manager, or even with Commissioner Roger Goodell. It rests with the NFL’s ruling class, everyone who could make a difference by hiring Kaepernick or stating publicly that he deserves a spot on a roster. Despite significant evidence to the contrary, this class takes it for granted that Kaepernick does not deserve a shot. That is the unspoken dogma, and so far nobody in a position to challenge it has done so.
Even if you did find an owner who sympathized with Kaepernick—keeping in mind that several of them are friends of Donald Trump—good luck finding one willing to say so out loud, particularly to his peers. Perhaps, in some front office, there is a Branch Rickey-like executive who would love to help Kaepernick continue his career, but it is manifestly true that no one is willing to stick his neck out. That doesn’t mean every NFL executive is a white-hood-wearing racist, but it does mean that the league’s unofficial policy is to exclude a qualified black quarterback whose only significant liability is his “controversial” stance on race in America.
Is any one person enforcing the policy? Almost certainly not. Nobody has to, because those who could break with it are united in their silence. Even those who may privately sympathize with Kaepernick are comfortable in their silence, and they would be uncomfortable doing anything else.
When no member of an institution is willing to call out a racial injustice, to question a status quo that deserves, at the very least, to be questioned, then that institution is institutionally racist. No one has to say “We don’t want him in the league.” No one even has to work toward that end. Among the NFL’s ruling class, it’s implicitly understood. The league can remain apolitical all it wants, but, in reality, it took a stance on this issue long ago. Without anyone giving the order, it has blacklisted Colin Kaepernick for speaking out about institutional racism. If you didn’t know what institutional racism was before, you do now.