Le Batard: Colin Kaepernick’s absence should haunt the NFL

  • ESPN Radio host
  • Columnist for Miami Herald

We want our fantasy football and we want our fantasy, period. We need the fun-and-games escape from all of America’s problems. And our blessed medicine, our respite from months of sea-to-shining-sea sickness, arrives this weekend in an avalanche of wonderful football, God bless America.

But as our country’s history records the victims and the complicit in real time, in a way that can’t be whitewashed like the school textbooks we’ve always given our children, it should be forever recorded and remembered that it was a United States Army Green Beret who first suggested to Colin Kaepernick that kneeling was the most respectful way to request that police stop being so brutal to Black people — a long time before protesters would take to the streets, a lot less quietly and a lot less politely.

Nate Boyer, who did multiple tours of duty for the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan in six years, was so bothered that Kaepernick was sitting on the bench during the national anthem that he wrote Kaepernick an open letter in the Army Times newspaper, and Kaepernick was moved enough to reach out and meet him for guidance. Boyer explained to Kaepernick that a man kneels to propose to his wife … kneels to be knighted … kneels to pray before God … and, when he or she is a soldier, kneels at the grave of brothers and sisters who have died in combat. Kneeling can convey a lot of things ranging from love to humility to grief, Boyer explained, but it does not ever seem to convey disrespect.

So Kaepernick did what too many people, but especially the NFL’s owners, wouldn’t do for him — he listened. And then he kneeled.

Regardless, once the kneeling was weaponized and all the angry noise started, Kaepernick somehow made the journey from requesting decency and humanity and respect for Black people to … disrespecting our military.

This notion ignores a lot of things, including the “God Bless Our Troops!” written on a football that Kaepernick signed for one of Boyer’s charities, but it is always easier to look somewhere else, anywhere else, than it is for our country to stare in the mirror at the racism that represents its original sin. You see that now from all the loud people eviscerating the NBA’s wokeness by suddenly pretending to care about the league’s social justice inconsistency regarding human rights violations in China … only and exclusively so they don’t have to care at all about the Black human rights violations so much closer to home.

You heard it Thursday night, too, just before the Chiefs-Texans game, during a benign moment of unity, when the players locked arms on the field to show that we’re all in this together, and the fans of football’s champions booed to show that we are most decidedly not … and then resumed their tomahawk chop. The hissing people in that stadium couldn’t for one second summon respect for the idea of humanity, of decency, in the middle of their fun and games. So, to kick off this football season, they booed unity.

All of this is relevant beyond those sidelines because so many credible news outlets are now reporting that our country’s president, the commander in chief of the world’s biggest military, calls fallen soldiers losers and suckers. Now that, if true, is indisputably disrespecting our military … a disrespect so profound and insulting that there isn’t enough fabric in the universe to camouflage it in any kind of flag.

Maybe you quibble with the reporting or the news media in general. Maybe you think this is fake news. As someone who cares about journalism, I’m cut to the core that this particular president, allergic to subtlety or grace, has taken such a hatchet to journalism’s credibility the past four years, and it makes me fear what a more sophisticated leader could do to finish the job. But you should know exactly how much care and vetting — from reporters, editors, lawyers and publishers — must have gone into getting the allegations of anonymous sources printed in places as credible as The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the news division of Fox News — all of which have confirmed the original reporting from The Atlantic that President Donald Trump does indeed call fallen soldiers losers and suckers.

But it is so much easier to tell the simple lie than it is to untangle the complicated truth, which is why Trump told Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that attacking the disrespect of Kaepernick and the NFL and kneelers was an easy, winning issue for him. Now that it is harder in today’s climate, Trump has pivoted from paid professionals to using the unpaid labor of college football as his political propaganda tool of choice, urging kids to collide amid the sickness for dollars in swing states because football has always demanded vastly more toughness from its labor than from the skybox owners lording over the gladiator spectacle.

As the excitement and enthusiasm for football finally returns, now we’re supposed to just forget about the past four years of historic cowardice from the power in this sport and resume our cheering because the NFL painted some new slogans in the end zones that make the big, bold, brazen statement that racism is bad? The Miami Dolphins clearly haven’t forgotten. Via a slick video released Thursday, one punctuated by their Black coach, they announced their disgust and distrust with the league’s owners — and that they’d be staying in the locker room during the anthem Sunday — because they are tired of superficial symbols and gestures, and they demand real and substantive action against racism. They did this because they know how good the owners are at hiding behind their pillars of money in shadowy silence, rarely pressed to answer any difficult questions about how they can at once support their players with sanitized statements and support their president with unsanitary dollars.

When Kaepernick kneeled, we all saw where and how the NFL stood, and that can’t be unseen. It echoes and haunts four years later, the unprecedented way Kaepernick suffered the strangest of career-ending knee injuries. No amount of jellyfish flip-flopping from the league changes the following: Kaepernick is back in Madden, raising a Black fist, no less, but him being a part of “EAsportsit’sinthegame” isn’t the same as being in the actual game-game, no matter how realistic we can make the virtual.

The NFL’s owners not only refused to be on Kaepernick’s side regarding protests but exercised an obvious institutional pressure upon him and his peers … choosing en masse, really, to kneel before Trump instead. These owners, with all their power and F-you money, either didn’t have the stomach for any kind of public fight or chose the wrong side, and they did so for almost four damn years, while Trump was at the height of his powers but they were also at the height of theirs. That the NFL has totally about-faced on this is not an act of nobility; it is the spineless swaying blown in by the day’s wind because of all the unrest in their huddles, in their banks, in their streets. Even as piñata Roger Goodell goes on an apology tour on their behalf, Kaepernick remains unemployed. The Dolphins are wondering: How can these owners be trusted to exert their power over anything in America when they can’t even get Kaepernick a job in their own sport?

Because it is so much easier now, and because their young star quarterback, Lamar Jackson, is Black, the Baltimore Ravens can now send out a remarkable team statement on company letterhead detailing bullet points on action to fight racism that included “arresting the officers responsible for Breonna Taylor’s killing and the shooting of Jacob Blake, demanding that Senator Mitch McConnell bring the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 to the Senate floor for vote and fair and equitable prison-sentence reform.” But the owner of the Ravens, Steve Bisciotti, is the same guy who said “pray for us” when considering signing Kaepernick as a backup … and then didn’t do it.

Ah, regardless, turn on the big TV lights and get ready for action because here comes our beloved King Sport without a martyred Kaepernick again, grunting to push an apocalyptic 2020 like a blocking sled one note closer to normal, trying to give our sick, coughing country that escape elixir it needs, like a junkie.

Goodell is probably relieved he can stop apologizing and get back to the escape of counting money, but some things require more than an “I’m sorry,” even in the land of second chances.

We all saw who you didn’t kneel beside. And we all saw whom you kneeled before.

Some things are so wrong that they can’t ever be forgotten.

Or forgiven.

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