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Whither Colin Kaepernick?

When it was announced that the Dolphins Ryan Tannehill was injured and the team was looking to sign an experienced QB, naturally the “Is Colin Kaepernick being blackballed” watch began again. And when the Dolphins decided to bring in Jay Cutler, (Jay Cutler!) instead of Colin, the screaming began again.

Except, here’s the thing about Kaepernick. He wasn’t so good that it’s clear he should be someone’s starting QB any more than Jay Cutler should be. So as you start looking at these individual decisions, it’s hard to find a clear-cut case of a team choosing the clearly lesser choice. For example, taking the names out of the equation:

  • Your quarterback gets injured as training camp is starting to ramp up and exhibition games are right on the horizon.
  • The new guy has limited time to learn the playbook
  • There’s a recently retired QB who played under the head coach previously in the same system

Yes, unless that guy was the worst QB ever, that’s the guy you go sign. Not the guy who played in an entirely different system last year. The only reason you sign Kaepernick in that situation is if he represents a truly fantastic talent above and beyond anything Cutler could do. The 49ers record with Kaepernick under center the last few years would not suggest that.

So, beyond that, is he being blackballed? Honestly, to some extent he probably is. Is that OK? Well, that depends on how you feel about whether the NFL is a business or not. (Hint, it is!)

As a business, the league, or any owner, has the right to say “I don’t want this person to work for me, because too many people don’t like him, and my business depends on people liking my team and spending money on tickets and merchandise”. This is no different than what Google just decided about their guy who wrote a memo disagreeing with Google’s diversity stance. If you’re OK with Google firing him because they know the public wouldn’t approve and don’t want to be associated with this guy, then you have to be OK with any owner looking at Kaepernick and saying the same thing. Lets’ face it, whether you agree with what he was protesting or not, a LOT of people did not like the way he protested during the national anthem. People who watch games, buy tickets, and own jerseys.

Of course, you could say the same thing about some other athletes as well. A LOT of people don’t really like Richard Sherman, or Dez Bryant, or any number of NFL players for any number of reasons, yet they still have jobs. This is where it gets tough. Those guys are clearly the best options for their teams. They are stand out players who bring more value on the field than they take away off of it. Kaepernick for the last few years has been the starting QB for a horrible team. His play has been “meh”, and “meh” doesn’t guarantee you a job regardless of what you do off the field.

At the end of the day, there are those who think that the NFL is punishing Kaepernick as a message to black players to sit down and shut up. I don’t think it’s that clear cut. There are plenty of outspoken black players in the league. I think the NFL is using Kaepernick to send the message that if you’re a mediocre player, don’t be an off-field problem, because there are lots of other mediocre players who won’t be a problem for an owner.

The cardinal sin in the cut throat world of professional football isn’t taking a stance politically. It’s taking a stance politically when you aren’t so much better than the next guy. No one is going to take the PR hit, or the infamous “distraction” for a mediocre player.

Seriously, this is the league where guys draft stock falls for being too smart and having intellectual pursuits outside of football. If you want to be politically involved, and protest the national anthem, you had better be awesome.

Bullying in the Locker Room

First off, let me just say straight up that I have no idea what the heck was going on in the Miami Dolphins locker room. I also am willing to admit that an NFL locker room is an environment that is, and should be, different from the typical workplace. Most of us are not being asked to do what professional football players are asked to do every day. That’s why I haven’t really had much to say about it.

But reading Brian Phillips piece on “warrior culture”, suddenly the story became something I feel very strongly about. That is the mental health angle to this story. Because when you look at the responses from within the NFL and the media, there is far too much “toughness” and not nearly enough understanding that mental health problems are real and need to be dealt with.

Because this — this idea that Jonathan Martin is a weakling for seeking emotional help — this is some room-temperature faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense, and I am here to beat it bloody and leave it on the ground. Every writer who’s spreading this around, directly or by implication; every player who’s reaction-bragging about his own phenomenal hardness; every pundit in a square suit who’s braying about the unwritten code of the locker room — every one of these guys should be ashamed of himself, and that’s it, and it’s not a complicated story.

When we talk about reasons why it’s so difficult for men and boys to seek help for depression or other mental health issues, this story provides us with a crystal clear example. “Real men” don’t go running for help, they stand up and fight, they go down swinging, they take care of their business. This is just plain stupid.

The brain is a part of the body. It’s an organ. It’s a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football,1 and sometimes — because it’s unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option — it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. Your ability to chortle “boys will be boys” doesn’t mean that psychological abuse of the sort that Martin apparently endured can’t widen that kind of fracture. But then, does the cause even matter?

Look at it this way: No one thought Joe Theismann was soft for leaving the game when his leg was hanging sideways. Sometimes the brain goes sideways, and when that happens, “brave” or “cowardly” shouldn’t even come into it. Seeking help is just the practical thing to do.

Of course, this is not the message that is sent to young men. The message is that seeking help is something weaklings and women do, not real men. Real men face their problems with toughness and, if necessary, violence. Better to go down swinging and be remembered for how hard you were than to admit to having a problem you need help with.

This is the sort of logic that leads to angry young men who beat their partners, commit suicide or walk into a mall and start shooting. If being tough means standing up for yourself and never asking for help, then it’s only natural to rage against anything that interferes with you. Unfortunately, it’s your own brain that is often interfering with you and there’s no amount of fake toughness that is going to make it stop. Only the real toughness that is willing to buck the message and get help.