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Sports Journee

Colin Kaepernick remains a sad reminder of the perils of being the first to take a stand

After three years in the wilderness, Colin Kaepernick has the chance to return to the National Football League. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the man who risked it all by becoming a political activist, it is not so straightforward.

On Saturday, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback will take part in a private workout at the Atlanta Falcons’ training facility in Flower Branch, Georgia. He will undergo a series of on-field drills, similar to the NFL scouting combine in which college players are evaluated ahead of the draft. All 32 teams were invited to attend with around a dozen expected to have some form of representation on the day. Those not present will have access to video footage from the event.

But there is a lingering sense something is not quite right. Showcases like these are not the norm, especially organised by the NFL and involving a player they have publicly battled with ever since Kaepernick took his first knee during the national anthem before a preseason match in August 2016. A knee taken to protest racial injustice, particularly concerning police brutality.

At the end of that season, Kaepernick opted out of his Niners contract, by which time many from other sports were kneeling too. Eventually – and inevitably – president Donald Trump had his say: “I’d love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespect our flag, to say, “Get this son of the bitch off the field right now. He’s fired. HE’S FIRED!’”

Trump boasted that many owners were friends and implored fans insulted by the disrespect shown to “our great national anthem” to boycott the NFL. As if by sheer coincidence, Kaepernick found it impossible to sign with another team.

Kaepernick’s social activism hit the headlines (Getty)

In February of this year, a settlement was reached between him and the NFL over a grievance, filed in 2017, that owners were colluding to keep him out of the league. The details of the settlement were undisclosed, but the manner in which this event has been hastily arranged suggests there may have been a stipulation for the NFL to become more cooperative. The finer details appear anything but.

Given teams will be preparing for their matches on Sunday, very few head coaches are able to be present in Atlanta. A request from Kaepernick’s representatives to move it to next Tuesday was turned down. It means just three days notice ahead of an audition many need months to prepare for. As the 32-year old alluded to on Twitter, he has been preparing for this shot for three years.

With Trump’s words still lingering around this story like a bad smell in a lift, franchise owners are wary of making the first move. As a free agent, they could have called him in for a one-on-one assessment. Instead, they are seeking to insulate themselves from any fallout in their fan base from those who continue to misconstrue Kaepernick’s actions as “unpatriotic”.

Upon hearing their franchise linked with his signature, a number of Dallas Cowboy fans expressed their dissatisfaction on Twitter, with one commenting: “Colin Kaepernick? Hell no. Keep that unpatriotic S.O.B. away from America’s Team!” Whether it is for the Cowboys or not, Kaepernick’s chances do look promising.

At the time of writing there are currently 19 quarterbacks listed as “injured”, of which eight can be regarded as starters. So far, 16 of the 32 teams have used multiple men under centre. Objectively in a sport decided by feet and inches and finer margins, they would be foolish to overlook someone with 85 touchdowns, 12,271 passing yards, 2,300 yards rushing, a 4-2 play-off record and a Super Bowl appearance. Or at least so you would think.

On a human level, this could be the end of a long and draining road for Kaepernick. Because while he has fully embraced his status as a symbol against social and political tyranny, it has been in the absence of the thing he loves most. Playing football.

Football was the reason he hustled all those years ago, conspiring with his brother to burn his highlights onto DVDs and hand them out to anyone and everyone at the University of Nevada. It’s why he approached other aspects of his life with the same vigour to keep himself a well-rounded athlete and why, as a result, it was off the back of a basketball match that he was eventually offered a scholarship.

Kaepernick hasn’t seen an NFL field in three years (Getty)

That kid from Milwaukee who had more hair on his chin than up top when picked up as a second-round draft pick in 2011 now has a broader perspective on life. Though that perspective may be darker, the excitement at getting back to where he was is as pure as ever.

Yet the inherent sadness to Kaepernick’s situation remains. He is a modern reminder of the pitfalls of being the first to take a stand. Just as Muhammad Ali lost four years of his boxing career for refusing to join the armed forces ahead of the Vietnam War, or Zimbabwe cricketers Henry Olonga and Andy Flower ended their international careers to stand up to the oppression of Robert Mugabe.

Kaepernick has seen his prime as an NFL athlete lost while still bearing the brunt of dissenters who will revel in whatever failures he might endure over the coming months and years. They’ll be rooting against him on Saturday, too. Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors basketball team put it best – Kaepernick has been a prisoner of that moment.

Along with drills, which Kaepernick is expected to excel at because of the physical standards he has maintained, he will undergo an interview. He will be asked about his activism and how much he intends to bring with him, and one imagines the NFL’s ruling brought in last year stating those next to the field for the national anthem must be standing will be broached. Ultimately, teams want know if it is possible to hire the quarterback without the social conscience.

It is tempting to spin this private workout as a chance to finally break free. But beyond a few more quarterbacks on the treatment table, not much has changed. Trump is still president, NFL owners are still fearful of him and the difficult conversations Kaepernick instigated three years ago have yet to yield tangible progress.

This is merely confirmation that even the most powerful athletes are indebted to their sport. For the rest of us, it is a reminder that while sport offers an escape from reality, it is still governed by the factors and influences we are trying to escape from.

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