Who is the wokest player in the NFL? Who has the No. 1-selling jersey in the NFL without starting one game all season? Who has the flyest sports Afro since Julius “Dr. J” Irving? Who started a protest that exposed half of the on-air NFL analysts for the closet racists that they are?
Just talking about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick has been riding the bench since the middle of last season behind perennial mediocre quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Now that the team has lost every game since the start of the season, 49ers coach Chip Kelly is putting Kaepernick in the game, having announced Tuesday that the quarterback would start against Buffalo this Sunday. That means that this Sunday, a confluence of ratings, politics, race and economics will come crashing together like a linebacker on a helpless receiver.
Which raises the question: Can Kaepernick even play anymore? And if so, what does his hitting the field do to protests across the league? The answer is harder to untangle than a goal line pileup.
Kaepernick’s return to the starting job for the 49ers couldn’t come at a more critical time for social-justice movements or the NFL as a whole. In the wake of the Charlotte, N.C., protests, more police shootings and a GOP presidential nominee’s advocacy of national stop and frisk, sports networks and some team owners were quietly trying to tamp down coverage of players protesting for justice. Kaepernick’s return to the field brings all of those issues back to the forefront.
On the NFL side, this season has been an absolute mess, and Kaepernick may be the cause or the cure. Television ratings are down in the league across the board. After Hulk-like ratings growth for almost 30 straight years, prime-time ratings of NFL games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday are down anywhere from 10 to 20 percent in some markets from last year alone.
There are lots of theories about why this is the case, half of which have to do with Kaepernick and the protests he’s sparked. Some analysts have said that the NFL is losing out to the presidential election: The first two Donald Trump-vs.-Hillary Clinton debates went up against Monday- and Sunday-night football (and trashed the NFL both times). Others have argued that the product has been garbage this year: badly played prime-time games, and major stars like Cam Newton, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are either injured, suspended or retired. Some argue that online viewing and cord cutting have made more fans tune in on iPads and phones instead of television.
The loudest theory for the NFL ratings drop has come from right-wing blogs that have been pushing the #BoycottNFL hashtag. A bunch of “deplorable” NFL fans have claimed that they are boycotting the sport until the league does something about Kaepernick and other players who kneel during the national anthem. (The conflation of the national anthem and saluting the troops: a strong and proud tradition dating all the way back to 2011, when the Department of Defense wrote a fat advertising check to the NFL.)
It is not clear which, if any, of these factors explains why the NFL’s ratings are deflating. I seriously doubt that a bunch of New England Patriots fans were willing to miss out on Brady coming back because a few guys put up a fist. Nor do I believe that a real football fan would rather watch Clinton spike the ball on Trump than Aaron Rodgers make a great play (I watch the debates and the game simultaneously).
Regardless of the cause, one thing is clear: Kaepernick’s return to the field Sunday will make the game between the Buffalo Bills and the 49ers one of the most watched of the season—which actually opens up a whole other set of problems for Kaepernick and for others protesting the killing of unarmed black men by police.
When Kaepernick’s silent protests went public, he got backlash from commentators who declared him un-American, spoiled and every other public coded word for “ungrateful n—ger” that you can get away with on basic cable. However, Kaepernick was in a unique position: He was a backup quarterback. Since he wasn’t playing, the focus was on the larger number of players who were protesting in the NFL, at the college level and even in other professional sports.
The Jason Whitlocks, Ray Lewises and Phil Simms of the world had to crawl back into their pillowcase forts and sulk because they couldn’t attack a backup, the movement was bigger than one man, and the fans were behind him. Now, with Kaepernick back as the starting quarterback, his play will become the lens through which his protests are now judged.
A month ago I noted that Kaepernick’s protests and statements on race were braver than that of LeBron James or of pre-Super Bowl Newton because he did not have the protection of a championship ring or an MVP trophy. Kaepernick was once a top five quarterback in the league; now he was a backup on a limited contract speaking out about social justice. If he goes out and plays well, this Sunday and beyond, it shows the world that social activism is not a distraction or an impediment to great play on the field. If anything, it could be argued that Kaepernick’s activism reinvigorated his career. Most important, his on-field success would show once and for all that being a star player is not a prerequisite to taking a stand on controversial social issues.
Of course, if Kaepernick plays badly, criticism of his play will be another shortcut to criticizing Black Lives Matter and other social-justice movements. Maybe if he spent more time with his nose in the playbook instead of with his fists in the air, he could win a game! Sports social media and press will eat him alive, and it will have a chilling effect on other players.
Ultimately, Kaepernick’s return to the NFL will draw eyeballs, inspire think pieces and, hopefully, raise some consciousness for the casual fan. While it shouldn’t make a difference how well he plays on the field, it will affect his credibility on social issues in the minds of some people. I hope he plays well. I hope he throws five touchdowns and blows the Buffalo Bills off the field. Because you know that first postgame press conference will be lit.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.