How to Stand With Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick is a worker. NFL owners are bosses. It’s on these terms that his racist blackballing must be resisted.

Colin Kaepernick throws a pass in October 2013, during his time with the San Francisco 49ers. US Air Force

As the NFL season begins, the controversy around former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick continues to grow. Ever since he took a knee (instead of a seat) during the national anthem last year, the debate around Kaepernick has careened from arguments about institutionalized racism and free speech to respect for the military.

To his supporters, Kaepernick is a defiant champion who continues to inspire other NFL players to take a seat or raise a fist in support of racial justice. To his detractors, Kaepernick’s refusal “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” represents an unforgivable sin — a betrayal of the military members who ostensibly sacrifice for liberty and freedom.

Over the past few weeks, however, Kaepernick’s fight has sharpened into a protest over his job situation. As teams continue to sign lesser players to free-agent deals, many believe the NFL is sending a message by not hiring the outspoken QB.

Seattle Seahawks’ wide receiver Doug Baldwin captured the sentiment earlier this month. Initially, Baldwin told ESPN, he didn’t think “the situation last year [had] . . . anything to do with” Kaepernick’s continued unemployment. But Baldwin changed his mind after watching teams in desperate need of a back-up quarterback — including his own — shun a player who once led his squad to the Super Bowl.

“After viewing what’s going on,” Baldwin said, “I’ve got to take that back. I definitely think that the league, the owners are trying to send a message of, ‘Stay in between the lines.’” Other players, pundits, and fans have come to the same conclusion, convinced that the NFL is blackballing Kaepernick for his social activism.

Team owners’ official excuses notwithstanding, many see Kaepernick’s jobless status as proof that “NFL” actually stands for No Freedom League — that they punish players for expressing their political views, especially regarding race. More still see Kaepernick as part of a long line of black athletes who have faced harsh career repercussions for taking a stand on the field.

But as people rightly rally against the NFL’s blackball campaign, the idea that Kaepernick’s ongoing joblessness has everything to do with the league’s “white power structure” needs refining. Rather than rely on vague abstractions that simply name a problem without describing the mechanisms that produce it, we need to confront the role that economic coercion plays in employer racism, giving strategies like the blacklist their force and limiting the capacity of workers like Kaepernick to fight back.

Certainly the NFL is engaged in a project of racialized commodification. It makes black players “safe” for consumers and uses them to rake in profits. But those profits rest on a particular class structure. And now that Kaepernick’s battle with the NFL is being explicitly defined in terms of the career fallout he faces for agitating inside the workplace, we should take heed of the class relations — employee and employer — that give the league’s actions practical power.

Like other more egregious forms of racism, Kaepernick’s lockout is class politics in motion.

What’s the Problem?

Ever since the blackball conversation began in March, when the Bleacher Report‘s Mike Freeman reported that roughly 70 percent of NFL teams were deliberately snubbing Kaepernick as punishment for his politics, owners and analysts have repeatedly reminded fans that the league is allowed to choose whom it employs.

Most often, that right is justified in meritocratic terms: Kaepernick simply isn’t good enough to be on an NFL roster (or, in some cases, he’s too good). The implication being that team owners only employ players whose talent, skill, and work ethic fit their top priority: winning (or to be more precise, winning for the sake of profit).

This arguably explains why, for example, certain players who have been accused or convicted of sexual assault continue to find employment in the NFL. Because the ensuing notoriety doesn’t negatively affect their wins column or overall profit margins, teams are willing to look the other way.

But the win-at-all-costs explanation appears to reach its meritocratic limit with Kaepernick, whose controversial case is political rather than criminal, and is said to create too much of a “distraction” for team management to tolerate. And so it appears that Kaepernick’s pariah status has little to do with the question of merit itself and much more to do with the double standard that has historically beset athletes of color who speak out.

Ultimately this analysis returns to the bottom line: the NFL’s allergy to Kaepernick, some argue, is another example of “business as usual” — a cowardly attempt by the owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell to avoid the possible backlash from fans and sponsors. “It really has nothing to do with what’s right or wrong,” Philadelphia Eagle Malcolm Jenkins said earlier this month in support of Kaepernick, “but what affects dollars.”

Many of Kaepernick’s opponents have acknowledged as much. They defend the NFL on the grounds that his protest doesn’t fit the league’s all-American brand. As the National Review’s Karol Markowicz put it this summer: “The NFL wants to be America’s organization, playing America’s favorite sport — patriotism is woven right in. Kaepernick wore T-shirts emblazoned with depictions of Fidel Castro: It wasn’t the right image for his employer.”

This view, which relies on the corresponding claim that Kaepernick shouldn’t have used the national anthem as his platform, only reiterates the belief that the league is within its right, as Kaepernick’s employer, to sanction him for his political speech. In effect, the message isn’t “shut up and play,” but “say what you want if your boss is on board, but don’t blame the First Amendment if your boss is not.”

The Problem Is Work

Of course, this message lays bare the underlying nature of the capitalist workplace: it is, as Elizabeth Anderson argues, a domain of “private government” where employers exercise broad control over workers’ lives.

Consider: in many US workplaces employers can enforce a dress code, read your emails, record your phone conversations, inspect your personal belongings, subject you to random drug tests, forbid casual conversations with fellow workers, prevent you from using the bathroom, and penalize you for any infraction of these rules. They have authority not just over wages, benefits, and hours but the technology that will be used and the products that will be produced. And thanks to at-will employment — the standard in American labor contracts — they can terminate you for everything from posting on Facebook or failing to exercise to having premarital sex, being too attractive, or engaging in political activism.

Yet because these autocratic decisions are typically viewed as the result of an especially unfair boss — as a case, say, of wrongful termination — their basic foundation in the capitalist economy goes unexamined.

The essential problem here isn’t that an employer might treat their workers unfairly: it’s that an economic relationship in which employers call all the shots makes a mockery of the question of fairness itself. It’s that employers hold all the cards, whether or not they act with magnanimity.

Because of the property relations that form the basis of capitalist power, workers get to keep their jobs only so long as the boss decides, for whatever reason, not to fire them. Short of that, management can deploy any number of punitive measures — demotion, pay cuts, bad hours — to discipline workers who step out of line.

Which brings us back to Kaepernick.

Beyond the Question of Bigotry

In a league ostensibly committed to workplace diversity, it’s not surprising that much of the protest around Kaepernick’s blackballing has invoked fairness. If sports (like markets) are truly meritocratic, the argument goes, then talent (not politics) should determine employment.

But therein lies the problem: as long as merit remains the political standard for pursuing justice in the workplace, appeals to equal opportunity will end up legitimating the power structure they supposedly resist. The righteous imperative to root out the boss’s prejudice turns out to be wholly compatible with the morality of the market.

Ironically, both sides of the Kaepernick debate argue from this assumption: team owners who seek to justify their hiring practices and Kaepernick supporters who claim racism has denied the quarterback his rightful spot on a roster.

Those who believe Kaepernick deserves a job based on talent have sought to put pressure on the NFL with a consumer boycott. But this, too, relies on the boss to do the right thing, lest they suffer an economic loss. The employer’s unilateral power to decide who deserves a job and who doesn’t, who gets to keep their job and on what basis, goes unchallenged, barring the intrusion of racism.

But for those committed to economic justice, the fundamental issue is not whether team owners are in fact racist for their decision to spurn Kaepernick but that, by virtue of their structural position as owners, they get to make that decision at all.

This issue is especially pertinent at a time when “good jobs” are increasingly hard to find — not just high-paying jobs like the kind Kaepernick once enjoyed, but even those that simply keep up with the cost of living.

When the number of people looking for good work outstrips the number of decent jobs available, employers are conferred enormous power over the terms of employment. And while neoliberals tell us that these terms make us free — because workers can enter and exit the labor 
contract at will — capitalist employment (for millionaire quarterbacks down to lowly towel boys) makes it so that workers are only “free” if they accept the conditions of the boss.

This dynamic offers few alternatives to employer despotism. It cements a class structure rooted in political economy — one that often gets expressed through racial hierarchies but ultimately constrains the entire sphere of political action. As Kaepernick’s high-profile case makes clear, the dull compulsion of economic relations determines the terrain of political struggle, setting material limits to what’s feasible politically both on-duty and off.

Accordingly, the ever-louder cry to confront white power (inside the NFL and everywhere else) requires a political perspective that doesn’t shrink the scope of concern to the boss’s (repugnant) bigotry. Instead, it requires a vision that sets its sights on the class arrangements that give the boss’s prejudices their force.

Where those arrangements rest on exploitation and the employer’s authoritative rule, the principled opposition to bigotry and racial exclusion is bound to run up against the efforts of a business class intent on minimizing the power of working people. Confronted with this structure, the fight for fair opportunity misses the mark so long as it fails to recognize that employment is not a site of voluntary agreement. It’s a domain of private governance where employers wield incredible power over workers’ lives.

Even a worker as prominent as Colin Kaepernick.