Thursday, March 23, 2017

About That Guy

They are not as rare as an honest politician. Let's not oversell this.

But you don't just pull guys off barstools to play quarterback for you in the NFL, either, which is why so many teams annually roll the dice on them in the April draft. A decent one's worth his weight in gold. A great one wins you Super Bowls, fills your trophy case and jacks the value of your franchise into the stratosphere.

There are very few great ones. And there aren't that many merely decent ones.

Which brings us, of course, to Colin Kaepernick, who is not anyone's idea of great but has proved to be decent in the right environment. With a quarterback-whisperer coach (Jim Harbaugh) and a few weapons to work with, he took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. And even last year, with the 49ers a smoking crater, he wasn't quite the accompanying disaster some portrayed him to be.

In 12 games, he threw for 20 touchdowns and 2,241 yards.

In those same 12 games, he threw just four interceptions.

His quarterback rating was a hardly-disastrous 90.7.

Yet none of that is what people noticed, because of what Colin Kaepernick did on the sidelines.

He knelt. During the national anthem.

Mind you, he was not disrespectful about it. He didn't stick out his tongue or moon the flag or even turn his back on it. He knelt, in what another context would be considered an attitude of prayer.

He did it to call attention to a rash of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans, and the funniest thing happened: A lot of other players started following his lead. They knelt, and then soccer players knelt, and then high school kids knelt. And along the way, a dialogue started up -- contentious at times, to be sure, and blatantly racist at times, but also constructive at times.

One player, Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall, reached out to local law enforcement. Community activists around the country followed suit. People began to talk to one another -- and because, at least in part, Colin Kaepernick took a stand by taking a knee.

Which brings us back to the value of quarterbacks.

By any measure Kaepernick is better than some QBs currently employed, or at least potentially better. But so far, no one wants to touch him. And if that is because teams do not want the "distraction" of having Kaepernick in their house, it's also because of the nature of that distraction.

Plenty of teams, for instance, were willing to overlook the "distraction" of having Tim Tebow on their rosters during the height of Tebowmania. That's because Tebow's distraction was regarded as non-political, and therefore benign. He knelt, too, of course. But it was an expression of faith -- and, in particular, Christian faith.

People called it Tebowing. It became a thing. And that's because it was, well, politically correct.


He's as politically incorrect as you can get. Calling attention to America's persistent racial inequalities, after all, is not something you can do in the Age of Trump without provoking a firestorm. And some of his other political views were regarded as equally inflammatory.

(Which says more about America than it does about Kaepernick, frankly. How it's inflammatory, or even controversial, to say police officers shouldn't be shooting unarmed people of color is a damn good question. And one that bears more introspection than some of us can stand).

In any case, Kaepernick's paying for all that now. And if you can say, well, that's just because of the nature of the business, it's also because he's being punished (to a degree, because sooner or later someone will sign him) for being politically outspoken. You can't really acknowledge the one without acknowledging the other.

Inflammatory doesn't play in the NFL, a corporate entity as rigid and antiseptic as any other. Corporations have never liked people who raised hell. By their very nature they're conservative to the bone, and the NFL is no different.

That's why the Shield eschews politics except when they're non-political, as when it honors the troops. It's why it's so obsessed with players keeping their uniforms uniform. And it's why it has actually put out a training video to indoctrinate its workforce on what is and isn't a proper end zone celebration.

Think about that for a minute: A training video to teach players how to properly exhibit joy. If there's such a thing as obsessive-compulsive conformity, that's it.

And for those who, like Colin Kaepernick, are its very antithesis?

Don't call us, son. We'll call you.

And tuck in that shirt.

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