Colin Kaepernick is trapped at the junction of quite a large conflict of interest — one where social justice work collides with capitalism. Examination of that conflict rose again when Kaepernick’s settlement with the NFL was announced. Kaepernick’s decision to settle (for what is rumoured to be large sum) has some calling him a sellout. I’ve written that I believe this interpretation of events is grounded in cruelty, a lust for watching Christians being thrown to the lions. Kaepernick’s detractors and some of his supporters are deeply invested in the narrative that he must suffer — either as punishment for not knowing his place, or as a martyr, sacrificed to provide vicarious redemption. I find both of these points of view equally distasteful.
I don’t consider the resolution of an employment dispute “selling out.” The parties signing a nondisclosure agreement is too common a practice to change my mind on that point. I think Kaepernick refused to let himself be robbed and made sure he got what was owed to him — wages he’d lost. If he got more than that, good for him. If he can get his employment reinstated, even better. I don’t understand why so many otherwise intelligent people are speaking in YouTube headlines about Kaepernick abdicating some duty to “EXPOSE!” the NFL. Particularly when the desire for “exposure” is mostly messy grasping for “the tea” and not the foundation for any real attempt to hold the league accountable. Demanding Kaepernick forfeit his settlement to assuage this gossipmongering curiosity is way over the line. There may be ways for at least some of what was discovered in Kaepernick’s grievance proceeding to be made public, but achieving that might require the people wanting to know the details actually do some work in between shouting. Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to question how well Kaepernick is managing the conflicts between his capitalist dealings and his social justice work.
Money, merchandise, and marketing. These three Ms are doing battle with another M in Kaepernick’s life: message. The struggle intensified when Nike made Kaepernick one of the faces of its “Just Do It” 30-year anniversary campaign. The collaboration has been a smashing success and proved Kaepernick is bank — he moves merchandise. The Nike campaign firmly dispelled the argument that Kaepernick was bad for business. He won that round decisively. The victory did, however, spark fear in some circles that Kaepernick and his message would be co-opted by Nike. That fear is justified. Capitalism always finds a way to deal from the bottom of the deck. The house always wins. Kaepernick is a brand — a powerful one. That’s why Nike aligned itself with him. Brand-building and social change are a volatile combination. It puts the person trying to manage blending the two constantly at odds with themselves. The place to look to scrutinize how Kaepernick is handling these difficulties is his philanthropic organization, Know Your Rights Camp (KYRC).
Kaepernick has been mired in a fraught battle that involves freedom of protest, labor rights, and of course what he protested against: unjust police killings that disproportionately target unarmed Black Americans. People come to KYRC and its social media with these thoughts on their minds, hoping to lend support. If Kaepernick had kept the organization privately funded with his own money, perhaps we could quibble, but the moment KYRC began soliciting donations from the public, the organization and its leadership submitted themselves to being held to a certain ethical standard. Kaepernick, whose name and reputation are at stake in all this in a way no one else’s is, submitted himself to being judged by this standard. Some of the activity on KYRC’s social media falls short of the requirements set by this standard. For example, using the camp’s social media to market for-profit interests that aren’t connected to the mission of the organization. Kaepernick’s romantic partner, Nessa Diab (a radio and TV personality with whom he co-founded KYRC), using the camp’s social media to promote and advertise her shows and professional projects has been a particularly flagrant abuse of trust — one Kaepernick seems to have condoned. Kaepernick has been open about Malcolm X being a hero of his, and KYRC gives copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X to attendees. Kaepernick often wears shirts with the slain civil rights hero on them and quotes him from time to time. One Malcolm X quote I’m not sure Kaepernick will ever say with his whole chest or meaningfully incorporate into KYRC’s curriculum is, “Show me a capitalist, and I’ll show you a bloodsucker.”
When I look at KYRC’s social media, sometimes I don’t like what I see. More importantly, I don’t like what’s being shown to me. I don’t like what I’m being told is important. That determined, almost grim procession of white-on-black shirts (for sale!) with Kaepernick’s name on the back reveals something of the man’s priorities. It must. Choices are being made about what content to highlight on the camp’s social media. I believe some of these choices should be reconsidered. Surely, there’s something more interesting to say, something more important to ask people to do than buy and wear a shirt. That fourth M — message — is the one Kaepernick has the most control over, and the criticism that his has become too capitalistic and self-aggrandizing isn’t entirely unfair.
“Cop this jersey” isn’t a point of view. It’s certainly not the foundation for any kind of compelling story. And story matters. I know that in a post-reality TV world, the notion of having a “storyline” seems gauche, but I’m talking about something deeper. I’m talking about myth. I’m talking about legend. I’m talking about the undergirding of civilization. I’m talking about stories as a core element of human understanding and connection. Story is why there was a surprisingly emotional public mourning for a space robot nicknamed Oppy that was devoured by a sandstorm on Mars. NASA made us feel something when it told us Oppy’s last communication was, “It’s getting cold and my battery is dying.” Kaepernick made us feel something when he knelt in protest. There is power in image. There is power in gesture. There is power in language. There is power in how all that coalesces to create a story.
Kaepernick is at the heart of a story that has dominated the news for over two years. Two years. In a world where the news cycle is perpetually churned to a froth and we move from one story to the next at high speed, he held our attention. He’s still holding our attention. Kaepernick’s is a riveting story about injustice, power, courage, castigation, banishment, struggle against insurmountable odds, triumph of a sort, and the uncertainty that emerges following an incomplete victory. The story remains ongoing, and it’s positively Shakespearean. When I turn to the source for more context, however, I’m instructed to purchase apparel… The hard pivot makes my back hurt. Nevertheless, I’m not owed the details of this story. No one is. It’s Kaepernick’s to tell or not.
Humiliating Kaepernick was one of the goals of the campaign against him. I’m sure there were moments when he felt humiliated. Or overwhelmed. Or frightened. Or unsure of himself. I’m sure there were moments when he was overcome by doubt about his capacity to fill the role he’d found himself in. I think everything became much, much bigger than he could have ever imagined, and he’s still wrestling with that. He isn’t obligated to share any of this struggle with us. His cavernous silence on the matter doesn’t bother me. I respect his refusal to play his role of chumming the water. (For context, I stan Kawhi Leonard’s weapons-grade taciturnity. I like it when introverts introvert unapologetically and win.) It’s not Kaepernick’s quietness that concerns me. It’s what sometimes rises up to fill the silence: clanging, tin-eared belligerence from his surrogates on the one hand, and, on the other, deliberately vague, obfuscating marketing speak — slogans you could use to sell Gatorade. Or Doritos. Or candy bars. “This is only the beginning.” Of what? Better shirt sales? Something else? Will a sneaker be involved?
The people at Wieden Kennedy (Nike’s ad agency) are very good at their jobs, and Kaepernick is likely contractually obligated to share the content they create on his social media. Is KYRC, though? I don’t fault Kaepernick for making the Nike deal, particularly when the outcome of his case against the NFL was still uncertain. I recognized the potential conflicts of interest between his relationship with Nike and his social justice and charity work but remained inclined to be cautiously supportive. The money for those backpack drives he runs has to come from somewhere. Capitalism forces us all to make deals with devils. Kaepernick made his deal with Nike. Nevertheless, is that a good enough reason to allow a point of view constructed to benefit Nike (a billion dollar corporation with a lot of sins to cover up) to take up so much room at KYRC? Is it a good enough reason to let Wieden Kennedy shape so much of the narrative? I sometimes wonder if Kaepernick is even having these conversations, or if he and everyone around him are just excited to attend the Nike launch parties and maybe get a trip on the company jet.
What is Kaepernick’s narrative? What is KYRC’s? Who is telling these stories? What is their point of view? Is it Kaepernick’s? Is it someone else’s? I honestly can’t tell. I do know that there are competing interests at work, though, and parsing them out is difficult, because of how much they’ve been allowed to commingle, particularly at KYRC. That commingling is the source of the ethical improprieties. It’s why the oily self-promotion creeps in. This all may have snarled itself into a Gordian knot Kaepernick will have no choice but to cut instead of trying to untangle. Kaepernick’s silence (which I believe he has a right to) complicates matters even further. As does his celebrity. It’s difficult to tell if the problems at KYRC have to do with Kaepernick’s beliefs or if they’re due to messaging that leaves something to be desired — messaging that can seem reactive and self-serving. It’s probably some combination of both. No matter the source, a clearer, more cohesive narrative than “buy this shirt, an injustice happened, Colin Kaepernick is awesome!” needs to emerge. There’s a way for Kaepernick to maintain his Sphinx-like mystery and shape a more incisive message. It will take time, effort, and creativity. It will be frustrating and demanding work to find a way to speak through and around his silence should he decide to maintain it.
Kaepernick’s already sticky situation is complicated even further by his professional goals. Now that it’s been made clear that the terms of Kaepernick’s settlement with the NFL don’t preclude him from playing in the league again, and he’s reiterated through his attorney that he is intent on playing again, he’s going to have to tread very carefully. The degree of difficulty he’s facing going forward may be even higher. I’m not as convinced as some that Kaepernick will never take another NFL snap. I think he has a chance to stick the landing and get his playing career back. There is little room for error on his part, though. Very particular care needs to be taken when discussing Kaepernick’s delicate circumstances as he moves forward.
Negotiating this minefield is something Kaepernick may have to do for the rest of his life, and I would imagine that’s a daunting and pre-emptively exhausting prospect for someone as private as he is. I believe Kaepernick knows there are times he and the people close to him have conveyed their messages poorly, and he was lucky to escape singed and not burned to a crisp. That’s another reason I don’t begrudge him his silence — it was prudent (at least for a time). Knowing when to shut up should be valued more. Omission can be a powerful form of communication, though. It can signal capitulation, assent, unconcern, and a host of other responses, nearly all of which indicate that someone else is in control. It also creates space for misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and manipulation. Chaos sometimes results. I believe Kaepernick bears responsibility for not taking a firmer hand in managing the disarray that sometimes springs up around him. Even so, it’s impossible for Kaepernick to keep watch on all the spinning plates around him by himself. He’s too famous. There are too many of them. I suspect that some of the people he’s entrusted to do the monitoring have been indifferent custodians, and those commingled, conflicting interests I discussed are the likeliest source of the distraction.
What does Kaepernick’s future hold? Does he even want to be a leader? It’s hard to tell. Kaepernick has become a kind of Rorschach test. Part of what’s happening is that all of us are projecting an image of him onto the blank screen his silence has erected. Whatever picture we conjure up is rooted in our reaction to his protest. A whole lot of the criticism of Kaepernick is people fighting shadows in their own heads. Shadows they created. The same goes for much of the praise he receives. We see what we want to see when we look at him. It may be too late for him to change that. Nevertheless, even though I do feel he’s entitled to keep his own counsel and recede into private life if that’s his wish, I also believe it would be wise for him to start speaking for himself with clarity and precision. It doesn’t have to happen often, but it needs to happen at least some of the time.
Kaepernick is a smart man. That’s a sentiment I’ve heard echoed throughout the ranks of his supporters ever since he began his protest, and I went along with it. All the research I’ve done in the interim has led me to revise my opinion: Kaepernick is flawed and has some large blind spots he needs to address, but he’s not just a smart man. He’s a very clever man with a bit of a ruthless streak who has been and continues to be underestimated. It’s one of the reasons I’m so firm about holding him to a certain standard and not wavering from it. It’s why I’m not taking my foot off his neck where the ethical obligations of running an organization like KYRC are concerned. To do otherwise is to insult his intelligence. He knows better, and he should elevate his standards. He should demand the people around him elevate their standards too. If they can’t, he should cull the herd. Mercilessly. The potential reputational risks are too stark for him.
I’m honestly not entirely sure what to make of Kaepernick. Over time, I’ve become conflicted about him. I was deeply moved by his protest and will always admire the courage it took and the effect it had. I also admire him refusing to take his blackballing lying down and wrestling a sizeable settlement out of the NFL. I think his stubbornness might be his greatest strength and his Achilles heel. It might get him back in an NFL uniform. Or it might be the thing that forecloses the possibility entirely. Nevertheless, the scope of what he set in motion is much bigger than him now. He didn’t handle everything that transpired well. No one could have. All the same, some of his wounds are at least partially self-inflicted. Unless and until he faces that, I don’t know if he can achieve his goals, and he’s an ambitious man. There is a great deal more he wants to do with his life.
Kaepernick (much to his surprise, I think) has written himself into history with his protest. His reclusiveness may, in part, be a refusal to accept the mantle that’s been thrust on him — at least not all of it. I think he’s struggling to find a way to do this all on his own terms, and that’s his right. Making everything smaller, closer to his own heart and mind (the way I suspect things were when he began his protest) may be the best way for Kaepernick to reclaim his message and make it his own again.