Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of when someone outside the 49ers organization first noticed Colin Kaepernick wasn’t standing for the national anthem.
Since then he’s been disparaged by the president of the United States and hailed as a hero for championing under-represented groups. His red, No. 7 jersey has been both burned and bought – it remains the top-selling 49ers jersey this year. On Wednesday a crowd gathered outside of NFL headquarters in New York to protest that Kaepernick remains jobless.
For a full year, Kaepernick has been a highly emotional topic in a sharply divided nation, and the story has been warped as a result. Here’s an attempt to bring five talking points about Kaepernick and his ongoing unemployment back to reality.
1. The 49ers dealt with a media circus last season and any team that signs him will, too. Well, yes. But mostly no. There’s no denying that a small army of reporters descended on San Diego for the 49ers’ final preseason game last year, the first game for which it was well-known he wasn’t going to stand for the national anthem. There were also a lot of media on hand for the 49ers’ season opener at Levi’s Stadium against the Rams two weeks later.
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But on most weeks, it was a normal-size crowd. And as the season went on – and the 49ers got worse and worse – the number of reporters who showed up day to day was actually smaller than usual. That’s not to say that team staffers didn’t have to deal with an avalanche of interview requests. They did, with every outlet from ESPN to CNN to The O’Reilly Factor clamoring to get a piece of Kaepernick. The game in Miami also was thick with reporters because of what Kaepernick had said about Fidel Castro in the run-up to the contest.
But for most players, the media interruption to their routine was minimal if not non-existent.
2. Kaepernick’s stance was divisive. Again, this is a yes-and-no response. His stance is absolutely divisive when it comes to the country at large. (See: comments section for any Kaepernick story in last year). There would be a thunderclap of boos – and worse – whenever he took the field for the first time during a road game.
But an NFL locker room is not a cross-section of America. His teammates either understood exactly why he was protesting or acknowledged his right to protest. At the end of the season, they awarded him their highest team honor.
It’s a simple majority-rules vote and it doesn’t mean he had unanimous support. Nor that there weren’t spirited discussions and disagreements in the locker room during the year.
But the knee-jerk predictions when his anthem protest began – that it would rip the 49ers apart – turned out to be flat wrong. Last year’s 49ers were awful. The anthem protest is well down the list of the reasons why they struggled.
3. Kaepernick opted out of his contract/wants a lot of money. The “he opted out” refrain has been used by detractors to suggest that Kaepernick could be employed if he really wanted to be.
While Kaepernick did opt out of a $14.5 million deal roughly a week before the start of free agency, the 49ers had no plan to keep him at that salary and told him so during a 15-minute meeting in February. The 49ers have said as much on several occasions, including in May when general manager John Lynch spoke with Pro Football Talk.
“And we had that conversation with him,” Lynch said. “So I don’t want to characterize it as he made a decision to leave here.”
According to Kaepernick’s agent, the quarterback has not been offered a contract by any team this year. He is perfectly willing to be a back up, the agent said, and is not waiting for a big-money deal.
4. Kaepernick was great/awful last year. In the push and pull over Kaepernick, it seems he either was responsible for one of the worst records in 49ers history (2-14) or was one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL as shown by his 16-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The truth is that Kaepernick would look sharp at some point during the game and flat and out-of-sync at others. This was the never-explained hallmark of Chip Kelly’s offense last season: It would score 14 points in one quarter, flounder in the next three.
It must be noted that Kaepernick’s supporting cast was perhaps the worst in the league, especially at the end of the year when his top three weapons – Carlos Hyde, Torrey Smith and Vance McDonald – were on injured reserve and were replaced by Shaun Draughn, Chris Harper and Jim Dray.
The most concrete thing you can say about Kaepernick is that he was noticeably stronger and healthier by the end of 2016 than he was to start the season as he recovered from three different surgeries. His trajectory was going upward from his low in 2015.
5. Kaepernick is blameless. From pig socks to Castro comments to salacious tweets, Kaepernick has been the most extreme of all the players who have protested in the last year.
Teammate Eric Reid and former Green Beret Nate Boyer wanted to steer him toward a more moderate stance by kneeling amongst teammates, instead of sitting alone behind teammates, during the national anthem.
Said Reid nearly a year ago: “That way you’re not isolated from the team, you’re not sitting down during the national anthem, you’re just changing your physical position, being more respectful to those people while still maintaining your stance on these issues.”
Kaepernick’s default, however, seems to be isolation and defiance and stubbornness. Combine that with a league that likes everything in lockstep and that is always fretting about its bottom line and you get the current stalemate.