There’s a disturbing trend I’ve notice among a subset of Colin Kaepernick’s supporters. Whenever his return to his chosen profession comes up, these people never really engage with the matter at hand. They pivot directly to “he’s choosing to do more important work in his community anyway” or some similar dismissive argument that’s nearly always delivered in a smug, self-important tone. There’s a capitulation to his persecutors and a glorification of his suffering that I find incredibly disheartening.
Punishing Colin Kaepernick isn’t about Colin Kaepernick. It’s about everyone who’s watching. It’s about keeping everyone else in line. It’s about shutting people up. The harshness of his punishment — the destruction of his livelihood — is quite deliberate. He’s being made an example of.
We can’t forget that Kaepernick’s dispute with the NFL is a labor rights issue. It is about fighting back against bosses using the denial of employment as a form of retaliation. Talking about that won’t get as many clicks as screeching about patriotism, but that is the crux of the matter: determining whether or not NFL teams colluded to deny employment to a qualified, unionized worker.
Everyone who has to work to support their lifestyle should care about the outcome of the case on these grounds.
Even more importantly, those of us who believe in the causes Kaepernick is fighting for should reject being seduced by the drama of his martyrdom.
We’re watching a Christian being thrown to the lions. He’s fighting bravely, and his courage is commendable, but we shouldn’t become so caught up in the spectacle that we slip into celebrating whenever chunks are bitten out of his flesh. We can’t mine his pain and shine it up into some glib talking point about community activism. That’s not support; that’s exploitation.
Kaepernick possesses an incredibly rare skill — one that was crafted and honed over decades. He apprenticed himself to this craft as a boy and worked harder than most of his critics ever will to master it. He is one of only a handful of people on the entire planet who is qualified to fill the job openings he’s not being considered for.
Ignoring all this and drawing the conclusion that he’s moved past wanting to play in the NFL again is putting two and two together and coming up with negative 15.
Kaepernick wants his job back! Why do we think he’s spending all this money to fight this so hard? Why do we think he’s still working out like a maniac?
It should be the easiest thing in the world for people who support Kaepernick to either back him in this play or shut up about it. Some can’t do it, though, because in that moment when they squint their eyes seriously and start talking about “working for the community” they get to look deep, like they too have made a meaningful contribution. Someone made a sacrifice, and, for them, standing next to it is good enough.
Seeking vicarious redemption through Kaepernick and others who are willing to put real skin in the game isn’t going to accomplish anything. Neither will shrugging and accepting the harsh punishments meted out to these activists — that makes things easier for the people persecuting them, and it is actively harmful to the movements they’re fighting for. It is a form of surrender.
There is a fine line between honoring someone’s sacrifice and glorifying martyrdom. The former is born of gratitude; the latter is how death cults get started. We can be grateful to Kaepernick without writhing in some kind of grotesque exaltation of his injuries.
It’s not enough for us to cheer for the Colin Kaepernicks of the world. We have to support them. We have to protect them. Carelessly going along with the narrative that their punishment is ennobling betrays our obligation to them. It’s not fair to ask them to give everything up, even if they’re willing to do so. The very least we can do is find some small way to help them claw back what has been stolen from them.