The National Football League (founded in 1920 as the American Professional Football League, and relaunched in 1922) opens its 95th season tonight, and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has no job. While the many experts who populate television, radio, and web forums claim that Kaepernick’s unemployment has nothing to do with the political stand he took against racism last year, and everything to do with his inability to move the 49ers offense last year, many of us look at other backup quarterbacks around the league — aging, slowing down, and with average NFL skill sets — and see an industry-wide boycott. Kaepernick’s unemployment is not a sports or entertainment issue, it’s a workplace discrimination issue in an industry that treats its workers, paid and unpaid, as interchangeable parts.
Football may be entertainment for most of us, but it is labor for those who play it, a kind of work that requires as much preparation and discipline as any academic or white collar professional training. In fact, many parents begin fantasizing about an NFL career when their children are only in pre-K: Pop Warner’s Tiny-Mite League enrolls players as young as five and as small as 35 pounds.
Yes, you just saw a perfectly executed tackle off left guard by a shooting linebacker who may not even be old enough to read yet.
I have always loved football, as a fan and as a recreational athlete. But between the NFL’s reactionary politics and my awareness that every professional player plays most games injured and medicated, it is getting harder and harder to be a spectator at one of America’s cruelest workplaces. Nevertheless, driving up to the country from New York City a week ago, I listened to the fourth, and final, regional exhibition game between the New York Jets and my beloved Philadelphia Eagles. The play by play involved an endless roster of free agents, un-drafted college players, and journeymen unknown to all but obsessed men, masters of obscure detail who spend their days calling in to sports radio shows to discuss possible trades and match ups and fiddling with their fantasy football rosters.
The game I listened to was like a modern, spandex-clad, version of the Grapes of Wrath. Fearing injury from a reckless hit delivered by a desperate rookie or free agent, neither head coach played his most valuable workers for a single snap. The result was a low scoring, chaotic, crabs in a barrel phenomenon, where only a few players would win the lottery: a roster spot that pays a union minimum of $450,000 a year.
By 4:00 on Saturday, teams had cut to the league maximum of 53 players, putting over 1100 workers on the open market. Some were snapped up in the next few days by other teams to plug holes created by injuries. Others were signed as practice, or “taxi squad,” players at $5700 a week; and some returned to jobs at Home Depot and into the gym, waiting for mid-season call ups and tryouts for lesser leagues like Arena Football and NFL Europe. Most of these workers will, however, be left unemployed, and woefully unprepared for another job, despite having attended college. According to 2014 research by Politifact, only 55.1% of Football Bowl Subdivision players, the elite of NCAA Division 1, complete their college education. And for those who are the lucky winners of a roster spot? The average NFL career lasts 2.6 years.
But the most famous unemployed football player in the United States is Kaepernick, who has not worked out with any team at all in 2017 (the good news is that he has graduated from college, and has also reportedly taken the Graduate Record Exam — American Studies PhD, anyone?) Kaepernick was released by the 49ers in 2016 after being benched towards the end of a miserable 2-14 season, but became famous beyond the sport for protesting racism and police violence against people of color by not standing for the National Anthem throughout the season. Other players, at several levels of the sport, have subsequently copied the protest.
What was originally a political issue, and a free speech issue, has now also become a right to work issue. You can’t “walk on” to an NFL training camp without being signed to some sort of a contract, and despite his experience, Kaepernick was not offered one by any team. It is widely believed that he has remained unsigned because of his politics (read our coverage of this issue by Joseph Heathcott earlier this year), a collective move by NFL owners that both punishes an independent thinker and serves as an example to other potential troublemakers. But NFL spokespeople, and sports journalists, continue to deny that the former QB1 is being illegally blacklisted. “Colin Kaepernick’s protests are not the reason the 29-year-old quarterback remains out of the NFL a week before the start of the 2017 regular season,” The Sporting News reported on September 1 2017, after an interview with an anonymous NFL general manager. “Rather, it’s his `handling of the situation.'”
As opposed to the standard of emotional maturity that football players are normally held to, I suppose.
While Kaepernick now has admirers who would never dream of watching a football game, the political movement he started inflames both the NFL establishment and, more importantly, the die-hard, flag-waving, football fans that power the NFL’s money machine. In a July 2017 poll by J.D. Power, 26% of fans said they had watched fewer football games in 2016 because of the anthem protests. After a group of twelve Cleveland Browns, eleven black and one white, took a knee in a prayer circle during the National Anthem on August 22 2017, the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association and ILA Local 1975, whose members were scheduled to hold a gigantic flag for the Browns opening game next Sunday, canceled their appearance at the game.
Despite increasing evidence that it is Kaepernick’s role as a flashpoint for conversations about race in America, defenders of the NFL insist that football is a meritocracy, in which everyone who deserves to work, works. Journalist Colin Fleming channelled sports radio yahoo culture into the New York Times op-ed section (September 2 2017) when he argued that: a quarterback who has completed only 59.2% career passes, and struggles outside the pocket, just isn’t that good. “If you’re below 60 percent,” Fleming writes, “you’re a fringe guy.”
More damning, Kaepernick was not asked to make difficult throws; he’s not a Matt Ryan-type quarterback, slinging the ball far down the field on deep crosses or challenging out routes. In the current iteration of the N.F.L., offense rules the day, with quarterbacks tasked to put up crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Kaepernick’s job was to be a game manager, making the easiest, high-percentage throws. And he still struggled. What are you supposed to do with a guy like this? What can he do for you? Can he help you win?
If Kaepernick deserves a spot in the league, it’s only as a backup quarterback. And he will eventually get a job as one, I bet, once quarterbacks start getting hurt. But the fact that he doesn’t have a job right now isn’t shocking, and it doesn’t have to be because N.F.L. owners are racists who are blackballing him.
But guess who else is below 60%? About three dozen other quarterbacks who were carried on NFL rosters in 2016, many of whom have contracts today and some of whom have serious behavioral issues (think Ben Roethlesberger of Pittsburgh, and Geno Smith, who will be backing up Eli Manning of the Giants.)
So why does Fleming’s view that a racist labor boycott has nothing to do with Kaepernick’s unemployment seem so deeply disingenuous to me? Because Kaepernick is so obviously talented? Because his method of political dissent is so revolutionary?
No — none of these things.Blacklisting workers is a time-honored tactic in American labor history; but understanding athletes as an infinitely renewable, and disposable, resource is also fundamental to football’s labor economy. A Kaepernick boycott is believable because the NFL is a chronically dishonest and mercenary organization that is incapable of taking a moral stand on anything, absent a profit move.
Consider the following:
- The most basic labor condition of football is violence and pain; since head injuries became a focus of public concern, we can add disability and death to that list. Since it began reviewing concussion data in 1994, the league has persistently tried to spin negative information about the effects, and extent, of traumatic brain injury in its players, despite increasing scientific evidence that head injuries are an unavoidable consequence of the collisions that occur on every play. Although the NFL has been compelled by the court to take some responsibility for dementia, depression, addiction and suicide among relatively young retired players, and has adopted new practices to detect concussion, spokespeople also continue to downplay the seriousness of brain injuries — which occur on plays where players’ heads are not even being directly hit. Just last summer league commissioner Roger Goodell declared that football was safe: in fact, watching football was potentially as dangerous as playing it. “There’s risk in life,” he shrugged. “There’s risk in sitting on the couch.” Of course there is. We all have relatives who have been diagnosed with degenerative brain disease caused by repeatedly falling onto their heads from the couch, right? Right?
- The NFL originally committed to spending $30 million to study brain trauma. However, as of July 2017, the league will no longer fund or cooperate with a National Institutes of Health concussion study, after having been censored by a congressional committee for alleged attempts to steer funds towards their hand-picked researcher. The league still owes $14 million on its pledge.
- While the NFL’s decades-long suppression of evidence that repeated head injuries lead to degenerative brain disease ultimately failed, the game has other dangers, many of which occur out of sight. Forced weight gain for line players leads to gastric problems, post-career obesity, and sleep apnea; while the multiple surgeries players undergo after every season lead to arthritis, other forms of chronic pain, and dependence on pharmaceuticals.
- Then there is accidental death. Although rare in the professional game, high school and college football players die every year, many of them from heat stroke and dehydration in regions where two-a-day practices are held in temperatures over 90 degrees. As late as 2009, when a coach was charged in a high school player’s death, teenage and college players were punished — or “toughened up,” depending on how you think about it — by being denied water. In a bizarre “training exercise” three weeks ago on Long Island, N.Y., 16 year-old Joshua Mileto was accidentally killed in front of — and by — his teammates when he was hit in the head by a 400 pound log his squad had been ordered to carry.
Football also has a bad record on policing its own workplace, promoting players as role models and stars who are actually awful people. For example:
- After Ray Rice assaulted his fiancee in a hotel elevator in 2014, Commissioner Goodell punished him with a two-game suspension — but not until film of the incident was broadcast. Public outrage led to Goodell instituting a policy that would suspend players charged with battering family members. But as New York Times reporter Juliet Macur noted at the time, that Goodell had to be shamed admitting it had happened meant that it would “take some fans a long, long time to trust the N.F.L. again.”
- In a particularly nasty workplace harassment case that would make any other Human Resources Director’s hair stand on end, in October, 2013, Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team after a year and a half of brutal hazing that occurred mostly in public. An independent investigation confirmed that Martin’s tormenters had bullied him with racial slurs, death threats, homophobic insults, and promises to sexually assault his mother and sister. When asked, these men claimed that a Dolphins coach had instructed them to “toughen [Martin] up.” But as it turned out, other Dolphins players, and at least one trainer, were similarly harassed: one player believed to be gay was held down on the field while his teammates were invited to rape him. In a case that foreshadows the attacks on Colin Kaepernick’s reputation, journalist William C. Rhoden predicted that Martin would be shunned by other teams: “in locker rooms and team offices — and not just in Miami — there may always be whispers that Martin is `soft,’” Rhoden wrote (which may have been a euphemism for “gay.”) Although he was briefly signed by other teams Martin retired in 2015. But the players who hazed him are still in the NFL: Richie Incognito plays for the Buffalo Bills, John Jerry for the New York Giants, and Mike Pouncey is still the starting center for the Dolphins. Jim Turner, the coach who allegedly authorized the harassment, coaches the offensive line at Texas A&M.
The NFL is an untrustworthy organization, one that tolerates workplace practices that rival fraternity hell week. Kaepernick may well not be a great quarterback: plenty of promising QB1’s have had a brief moment of glory, only to become journeymen who, as they age, are hired as backups, field generals for the kicking team, and mentors for the next number one pick. But given football’s recent labor history, it’s also not hard to believe that there is not an informal, and effective, agreement that he is simply “bad for the brand” — and that his career-ending punishment is meant to be an object lesson for other players who step out of line as well.
Sure, the NFL and its boosters say otherwise — but why would we believe them?
Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter.