Colin Kaepernick's Nike ad / PBS screenshot

American football player Colin Kaepernick has reached a new low. His claim to fame lies not in his athletic performance­— not anywhere near greatness—, but on his kneeling acts during the playing of the American national anthem as a protest against police brutality (admittedly, a problem worth addressing, although not with the racial implication Kaepernick attributes it).

This rise to fame as a social justice warrior allowed Kaepernick to market his own brand of shoes with Nike, yet disturbingly he has remained silent regarding labour abuses of corporations —such as Nike— in China, where his shoes are made.

But now, Kaepernick has taken his chutzpah to a new level. As part of a Netflix documentary series about his life, Kaepernick has released a video in which black football players morph into slaves being sold by white masters in a 19th Century auction. Kaepernick then goes on to attempt to establish similarities between the National Football League and slavery, explaining that “before they put you on the field, teams poke, prod and examine you, searching for any defect that might affect your performance. No boundary respect, no dignity left intact.”

I am aware it is annoying to cite the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but given the current wave of Newspeak, I am left with no other option, so here is the definition of slavery: “the state of a person who is held in forced servitude.”

Who, exactly, is forcing athletes to sign multi-million deals and enjoy all the perks of our sports-obsessed culture? If slavery were redefined to suit Kaepernick, people would be lining up to enrol for this “slavery”. This is not just a matter of semantics. Using the same word to describe receiving millions of dollars in an NFL draft, and being sold in slave markets in Libya takes away dignity from those who continue to suffer the horrendous evil of human trafficking.  

Kaepernick is upset by the fact that teams “examine you, searching for any defect that might affect your performance.” But being examined is the basis of meritocratic systems where privileges and positions are allotted on the basis of excellence. And the world of sport is as meritocratic as it gets: coaches want to win, so they must leave their nepotism and prejudices aside, and simply choose the best players, in order to clinch the championship. Precisely because of all the perks that football brings to athletes, prospects for teams abound, and NFL drafts are extremely competitive.

The only way to ensure that the best players are selected, is by making sure that, as Kaepernick himself claims, there is no defect that might affect their performance. Despite Kaepernick’s constant race baiting, this reality has nothing to with race: all professional sports, from white-dominated hockey to black-dominated basketball, engage in this form of competitiveness and ruthless selectiveness.

But, I will grant Kaepernick a point: football has indeed harmed the African-American community. When you listen to a college athlete such as Cardale Jones pronounce the infamous words “Why should we have to go to class if we come here to play football? We ain’t come to play school, classes are pointless”, you begin to get the picture.

In the United States, the academic achievement gap between whites and African-Americans is still worrying. Surely, there are many causes for this gap, and racism is probably one of them. But we must nevertheless come to terms with the fact that there is also a cultural dysfunctionality at play. African American kids who are high academic achievers are at risk of being accused of “acting white” by their peers.

In the nerd/jock split, the African-American community places greater hope on the latter. If you prefer a book over the football helmet, you are likely to be perceived as a race traitor.

Renowned black sociologist Harry Edwards has long been aware of how detrimental this is to the African American community. As he explains, “the chances of your becoming a Jerry Rice or a Magic Johnson are so slim as to be negligible. Black kids must learn to distribute their energies in a way that’s going to make them productive, contributing citizens in an increasingly high-technology society.”

In other words, black kids need to pay more attention to doing their math homework and worry less about Aaron Donald’s defensive tackles.

Colin Kaepernick has a golden opportunity to call it as it is and advise the youngsters who look up to him to cool the obsession with football, not because it is a form of slavery—an idiotic argument—, but because their future will be brighter if they focus on academic achievement.

Yet, Kaepernick also needs to make it very clear to them that in any professional sphere of society —athletic or not— they will examine you, and that is perfectly fine. Given Kaepernick’s inglorious past, I think he will once again drop the ball on this one — pardon the pun — but let’s give him one more chance.

Gabriel Andrade

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion and psychology.