A week before Christmas 1996, Craig Hodges, who twice during his 10 NBA seasons was the league’s best three-point shooter, filed a federal lawsuit against the NBA. He charged that the league colluded to end his career four seasons earlier.
Hodges contended the league was upset that he showed up at the White House with Michael Jordan and his other teammates from the 1991 NBA champion Bulls draped in a dashiki – a traditional West African tunic popularized here during the Black Power movement – and exercised utter audacity by presenting their host, President George H.W. Bush, with a two-page letter calling for the plight of people of color and the poor in this country to be prioritized in Bush’s domestic agenda.
A week into 1998, the court dismissed Hodges’s complaint. His career effectively died when the Bulls waived him following their second championship in 1992.
But Hodges’s story was revived with the advent of this NFL offseason’s free agency period. He’s been reincarnated in Colin Kaepernick. To be sure, Kaepernick managed the 17th-best quarterback rating last season among starters while coming back from injury. His touchdown percentage was 13th best, better than Washington’s Kirk Cousins, who wound up in the Pro Bowl and with a new franchise-tag contract worth $24 million next season. His interception percentage was sixth, just behind Aaron Rodgers and just ahead of MVP Matt Ryan.
And Kaepernick did all of that on a team that was abysmal because of disarray in its ownership and front office, as well as its sidelines.
Kaepernick, not yet 30, was not without failure on the field. His yards per attempted pass was in the bottom third of the league, but so was Eli Manning’s. He was one of just six starting quarterbacks not to achieve at least a 60 percent completion rate. Yet, 37-year-old Josh McCown, who completed just 54.5 percent of his passes last season and posted an anemic passer rating of 72.3, was awarded a new contract earlier this week by the New York Jets.
It all was enough to lead filmmaker Spike Lee last Sunday to post on his Instagram account: “Just Had Brunch With My Brother Colin @Kaepernick7 . How Is It That There Are 32 NFL Teams And Kap Is Still A Free Agent? WTF. Smells MAD Fishy To Me, Stinks To The High Heavens.”
Truth is, Kaepernick’s numbers have nothing to do with what entering Thursday became his second week of unemployment in the league. What has everything to do with his predicament is optics, the same one that ultimately derailed Hodges.
Call it audaciousness.
It wasn’t just that Kaepernick last season dramatically protested the extrajudicial killings of mostly unarmed black men in this country by police who rarely get charged for their actions, let alone prosecuted or convicted. It was that he chose the anthem as his platform. By kneeling during its rendition, he appeared to mar the package of patriotism the NFL put together over the last half century that helped it overtake baseball as America’s sporting pastime.
As Michael Oriard pointed out in his book “Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport,” the turning point for the NFL’s outrageous success came in the late ’60s when it turned to the Orange Bowl’s founder, Earnie Seiler – “a man so patriotic,” wrote Sports Illustrated in 1972, “he weeps when Anita Bryant sings The Star-Spangled Banner” – to produce its Super Bowls.
It was Seiler who introduced to NFL games military aircraft flyovers and children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. He did so at time when the country was torn over the Vietnam War and longhaired, flag-burning protesters were seen as enemies to the American state.
From that point, Oriard observed, “[the NFL] positioned itself clearly on one side of the era’s political and generational divide. . . . For [then-commissioner Pete] Rozelle, the Super Bowl was chiefly an advertisement for NFL football, investing the game with ‘traditional American values.’ “
The NFL juxtaposed itself to the urban sports of baseball and basketball. It became the sport of America’s burgeoning suburbs, where many white families sought solace from rebellion in big cities. As a result, the NFL became the sport of middle- and working-class white America, whose distaste for Kaepernick’s pro-#BlackLivesMatter, apparent anti-police stance, was summed up Monday night in Louisville, Kentucky, by the new president who carried most of that NFL demographic.
“Your San Francisco quarterback, I’m sure nobody ever heard of him,” President Donald Trump said of the NFL player who made transcendent news last season. “There was an article [Monday], it’s reported, that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Can you believe that?”
What I can believe is that the NFL’s coldness toward Kaepernick is not accidental or rooted in analytics, advanced or otherwise. It may not have come down directly from commissioner Roger Goodell’s office, or up from the owners. But there is a tacit support given that Goodell verbally welcomed Michael Sam as the league’s first openly gay draft prospect after Sam revealed his sexuality, which was followed by the Rams choosing him and the Cowboys giving him another look after he was cut by the Rams. Goodell even pointed out that the league had ” . . . a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. We will have further training and make sure that everyone understands our commitment. We truly believe in diversity and this is an opportunity to demonstrate it.”
But the NFL doesn’t have a rule like the NBA’s H-2 under Player/Team Conduct and Dress that demands: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.” As a result, a stiff arm in free agency was the only punishment for Kaepernick available to the NFL for his remonstration during its game’s manufactured opening.
Kaepernick is being made an example of by the NFL not unlike Hodges was in the NBA for his fearless departure from the prescribed behavior of athletes, particularly those of color. As former Maryland and NBA star forward Buck Williams told New York Times columnist Ira Berkow of Hodges’s suit 20 years ago: “It’s well known through the league that there may be repercussions if you speak out too strongly on some sensitive issues. I don’t know if Hodges lost his job because of it, but it is a burden when you carry the militant label he has.”
It doesn’t matter that there are laws, rooted in freedom of speech, in some places in this country that protect employees from punishment by their employers due to their political views or activities. Washington, D.C., is one such place. California, where Kaepernick played since entering the league as a rookie in 2011, is another. What Kaepernick dared to do was spit in the NFL’s eye.
Unless and until Kaepernick is back in the league under a contract commensurate with his résumé, blackballing is football’s payback.
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Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.