The Ghost in the NFL’s Machine

Why Colin Kaepernick Overshadowed Super Bowl 53

Last week, in the run-up to Super Bowl weekend, a curious thing happened. In what appeared to be an orchestrated effort, a nine-month old article from Yahoo Sports discussing Colin Kaepernick’s collusion grievance was circulated widely on social media and was picked up in news reports. The article by Charles Robinson discussed the results of a survey taken in the summer of 2017 by the consulting firm, The Glover Park Group (GPG), which were distributed to high-ranking NFL officials and executives, including Commissioner, Roger Goodell. As reported by Robinson:

“According to sources, the NFL approved research that sought two pieces of information: Whether Americans believed Kaepernick should have been signed by an NFL team; and given that Kaepernick remained a free agent, whether fans believed that was because he refused to stand for the national anthem or due to his on-field performance or other reasons.”

Kaepernick was the only player mentioned by name in the survey. This information is nine months old. Why was it being discussed and reported as if it were breaking news? We are being told where to look. We are being told what’s important, because the day of reckoning for Kaepernick and the NFL is fast approaching. In August of last year, Stephen B. Burbank, the arbitrator in Kaepernick’s grievance case against the NFL, denied the league’s request to have the case dismissed, setting the stage for a trial-like proceeding. As reported by Robinson, the most likely date for the trial was expected to be sometime in February of this year, after the Super Bowl. Kaepernick’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, using the run-up to Super Bowl 53 to discuss the case on The Today Show certainly makes it seem likely that the trial is approaching. Geragos had plenty to discuss, because even though Kaepernick has been excluded from the NFL for two years, he remains a hot topic of conversation.

At his annual Super Bowl press conference, Goodell was asked about Kaepernick’s exclusion from the league, to which he responded, in part, “I think if a team decides that Colin Kaepernick or any other player can help their team win, that’s what they’ll do. They want to win, and they make those decisions individually in the best interest of their club.” He was excoriated on social media. Geragos added his scathing condemnation and pointed to the signing of players of lesser ability than Kaepernick to attack Goodell’s statement.

The Undefeated’s Martenzie Johnson compiled a list of all the quarterbacks who have been signed to an NFL team since Kaepernick entered free agency in March of 2017. The list demonstrates pretty comprehensively that Goodell’s statement can’t possibly be accurate. There have to be other considerations besides “can he help us win?” at play when teams have decided which quarterbacks to sign and passed Kaepernick over. Geragos singled out the Washington franchise, which was in playoff contention when it signed Mark Sanchez (of “butt fumble” notoriety), essentially scuttling their season. Washington also signing Josh Johnson, who last threw a pass in an NFL game in 2011, demonstrated that teams were willing to scrape the bottom of the barrel clean through and bore a hole to the far side of hell to find someone, anyone, who wasn’t named Colin Kaepernick to play quarterback.

This is why the GPG survey is so important. By itself, it doesn’t prove collusion, but it provides the first link in the chain, and it’s a solid one. The survey singled Kaepernick out, proving definitively that he had been singled out. That list The Undefeated published demonstrates that he’s still being singled out. The responses to the survey, which were sharply divided along racial lines, political affiliation, and age, may also demonstrate some of why Kaepernick was singled out — to placate a certain portion of the NFL’s fan base. The question is whether or not Geragos and his team can connect the dots to show that agreements (formal or informal) were made to keep singling Kaepernick out and blackball him. In Robinson’s original reporting, his sources didn’t confirm whether or not the survey was distributed outside of the league office and shared with team owners and management. If it was, that’s another link in the chain.

In addition to being the topic of uncomfortable questions from reporters, Kaepernick managed to create an invisible picket line around the Super Bowl. Specifically, cordoning off the stage of the half-time show. Cardi B rejected the NFL’s offer to perform in an act of solidarity with Kaepernick. Last week, she reiterated her support, saying, “I got to sacrifice a lot of money to perform. But there’s a man who sacrificed his job for us, so we got to stand behind him.” Rihanna also reportedly turned down the gig, and the NFL had trouble finding acts to perform before landing headliners, Maroon 5, and special guests, Travis Scott and Big Boi.

Jay Z, who has rapped about turning down the Super Bowl half-time show, reportedly failed to convince Travis Scott not to perform. Scott tried to have it both ways by implying that Kaepernick had given him his blessing to perform. Geragos refuted the claim as “categorically untrue” during his interview on The Today Show. Meanwhile, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd put out a powerful statement imploring the performers to support Kaepernick, saying, in part:

“My colleagues Maroon 5, Travis Scott, and Big Boi are performing during the halftime show at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday, I call upon them to ‘take a knee’ on stage in full sight. I call upon them to do it in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, to do it for every child shot to death on these mean streets, to do it for every bereaved mother and father and brother and sister.”

The performers’ press engagements leading up to the show were pared down considerably in what looked like an attempt to avoid questions about Kaepernick. The world waited to see what statements, if any, they would make during their sets. Most importantly, would anyone “take a knee.” No one did. Personally, I’d been holding out hope Big Boi was going to do something. To live is to be disappointed.

The Patriots won on Sunday night. But Kaepernick won too. His absence cast a long enough shadow to dim the lights of the half-time show, and his silence drowned out an arena sound system. Ever since Kaepernick began his protest, the NFL has had to keep adjusting and reacting to the space he and his supporters take up. For all the owners’ power and wealth, they’re not in control.

I very nearly called this essay The Man Who Wasn’t There, but I decided to stick with the title after I considered what I knew about the GPG survey and The Undefeated’s list. The term “the ghost in the machine” was coined by British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, in his book, The Concept of Mind. In it, Ryle pondered the connection between body and mind and argued against René Descartes’s theory that the mind is not physical and is separate from the brain. Ryle referred to the notion of a separate mind controlling the body as “the ghost in the machine.” The meaning of the term has widened to include devices that act outside the commands of their human operators. I don’t think there’s any denying that things in the NFL aren’t going the way its operators (the owners) desire, and the ghost in their machine is Kaepernick.

In his discussion of the ghost in the machine, Ryle coined another term: “category mistake,” which occurs when you try to analyze items for comparison (in Ryle’s case, the mind and the body) as if they are part of the same logical category when they aren’t. It creates faulty premises that lead to illogical arguments, and finally to incorrect conclusions. I never took to philosophy (I overthink things, but not that much). Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about category mistakes all weekend and wondering if that may be part of what has made the NFL’s response to Kaepernick so bizarre at times. The survey Robinson reported on named Kaepernick, but it also asked the respondents about the wider issue of the player protests. In addition, The Undefeated’s list crystallizes what we’ve all watched unfold: The NFL’s attempt to excise the protests from the league has been largely focused on excluding Kaepernick. They’re trying to ostracize a man (category: human beings) in order to destroy the protest he started (category: ideas). This error in logic (mashing together a physical being and an abstraction and treating them as interchangeable) may have created much of the irrational bungling we’ve witnessed from the NFL on this matter. Kaepernick is arguably the most important part of the protest movement he started, but he is only a part. The protest carries on and makes itself seen and felt even in his absence, because of the power of the idea.

A broader category at work in all this is civil rights. While keeping Kaepernick out, the NFL also has to put forth the image that it is on the right side of the fight for civil rights. The league made a big push on this front for Super Bowl 53, in part, because of the rich civil rights history in the host city, Atlanta. At the game itself, prominent civil rights leaders, including Bernice King (yes, one of those Kings) and John Lewis, participated in the ceremonies. Each time the NFL does something like this, it summons the ghost in the machine. Running a social justice commercial using a voiceover of Martin Luther King, Jr. and featuring his former church only shines brighter lights on the Kaepernick-shaped hole they’re trying to obscure. It’s a no-win situation. It’s far past time for them to cut Kaepernick his check, have a team sign him, and put an end to this foolishness.

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*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: | IG: kitanyaharrison

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