On the surface, Thursday’s news that the Seahawks passed on a chance to work out a player because of his politics looked to be one of the more astonishing developments of the off-season. And since that player was QB Colin Kaepernick, it’s astonishing on another, purely football, level.
As most everyone around the NFL knows, coach Pete Carroll is in the vanguard of coaches who permits freedom of expression, believing that respecting a player’s individuality has benefits for the player as well as the team, from a standpoint of recruiting.
So when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday that the Seahawks a couple of weeks ago put off a previously booked workout for Kaepernick when he declined to say whether he would stand or kneel for the national anthem, the double-takes were cartoon-ferocious.
A year earlier, when Kaepernick was a free agent following a tumultuous 2016 season when he became an object of national controversy for kneeling to protest police shootings of unarmed African American men, the Seahawks invited him to talk about being Russell Wilson’s backup. No workout ensued, but the Seahawks were the only team known to interview a player who subsequently has sued the NFL, claiming teams colluded to blackball him.
Kaepernick, 30, has not played since he bought himself out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, whom he led to a Super Bowl.
Since then, things have changed.
Many more players in 2017 replicated Kaepernick’s protest, especially after drawing the ire of President Trump, who, as part of his plan to help provoke national division, berated kneeling players, saying Sept. 22 that anyone who knelt or sat during the anthem was “a son of bitch” who should be fired.
On the following Sunday, protests erupted around the league. Often in the forefront of national activism, the Seahawks were in Nashville for a game against the Titans and spent parts of Friday and Saturday in long meetings to discuss an appropriate response to Trump’s condemnations.
The Seahawks decided to stay in the locker room during the anthem, and crafted a public statement:
As a team, we have decided we will not participate in the national anthem. We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms. We remain committed in continuing to work towards freedom and equality for all.
Players later spoke generally about the difficulty in reaching consensus prior to a game they lost 33-27. But it took until Carroll’s season-ending press conference Jan. 2 for someone to admit how distracting were the events of that weekend.
“I really do think it had an effect,” he said. “I think it had an effect on a lot of teams and a lot of players. It was an extraordinarily heated time. I think that was a different amount of emotional output that occurred before the game. It looked like it the way we played; it looked like it took its toll. We had gone through the whole process in doing what we did. We needed to do it, and we couldn’t avoid it. We had to face it and we had to deal with it.
“The other team called us up and said, ‘What are you guys going to do?’ They said ‘OK, we’ll do that, too.’ I don’t know if they went through the same process that we went through or not. Honestly, if I could’ve done something about it, I would’ve. I don’t think that there was anything but needing to face it; it’s too real.”
A more descriptive account is now available in former Seahawks star Michael Bennett’s new book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.
Published last week with co-author Dave Zirin of The Nation, Bennett shed light on the intensity and fractiousness of the meetings.
On our team, it wasn’t easy to get to (a common direction). The day before the game was an emotional discussion. Everybody was expressing their feelings, talking about what they’d been through emotionally, physically and spiritually over the previous twenty-four hours, and some people had different ideas about the protests. Trying to help us all understand was not easy, and conversations definitely got heated. I can’t even say that we truly came together. We talked about all kinds of things we could do, and in the end, we had about 75 percent of the team buying into the locker room plan.
A big group of us worked on the statement, crafting every word. Different people picked apart and wrote certain sentences or pointed out what they wanted changed. There’s an expression, “A horse by committee is a hippopotamus,” but I thought we ended up with a pretty cool hippopotamus.
Bennett went on to praise Russell Wilson, who spoke in favor of the protest, writing that the normally politically correct Wilson’s clarity of message and conviction impressed many of his teammates.
Bennett since has been traded to Philadelphia and also has been arrested because of a 14-month-old incident at the Super Bowl in Houston which he was charged with shoving and injuring an elderly female security worker who was trying to deny him field access. So the book tour is temporarily interrupted.
None of that changes his account that player divisions in September were real, underscoring Carroll’s belief that the game outcome was impacted by the Seahawks’ distractions. The Titans were reported to have had little in the way of meetings, and merely followed the Seahawks’ lead.
Given that context, it is more understandable why the Seahawks put a pause on the decision to work out Kaepernick. As much as Carroll and many Seahawks players support Kaepernick’s principled stand, they experienced first hand the disruption that the “too real” world can have on game preparation.
National reports said that Kaepernick’s indecisive answer about whether he would stand for protests caused the Seahawks to reconsider, although sources reportedly said the door was not closed.
But the Seahawks know that if Trump makes another reckless comment in September, Kaepernick in a Seahawks uniform will become a magnet for media that would eclipse the team and the game.
No team, player, coach, owner or lawyer in the NFL has figured out how to manage the players’ silent, peaceful gesture so that it doesn’t provoke backlash among fans who believe the protest is against the anthem or Trump. Some say the resentment was a big contributor to a nearly 10 percent decline in the NFL’s TV ratings in 2017.
Even players are divided on the future of the protest. Some more pragmatic players support the NFL’s decision to contribute $90 million to a social justice initiative that would fund programs to combat social inequality. Others think the acceptance of the money is a sellout to get players to abandon the protest.
Largely ignored in the debate is the fact that the anthem at sports events already is an injection of a political statement in a supposedly non-political environment. The widely accepted custom of the anthem is likely disrespected far more by boorish, drunken fans than players seeking to make a non-disruptive point.
Overshadowed by the social/political consequences of a potential Kaepernick hire is a pertinent football question:
Since Carroll said a year ago that the reason Seattle passed on Kaepernick was that he wants to be a starter when the Seahawks already had one, what has changed?
Either it’s Kaepernick’s mind, or the Seahawks’ belief that Wilson might no longer be the starter.
Seahawks GM John Schneider said at the NFL combine that the Seahawks had no untouchables. Many took that as mere rhetoric that didn’t include Wilson.
But with Wilson’s contract expiring after the 2019 season, and the 2018 QB marketplace already reaching near the $30 million average annual salary level, the Seahawks have to ask whether they can devote so much money under the salary cap to a single player, no matter how good/beloved/successful.
The draft is two weeks away, and the Seahawks still don’t have a second- or third-round pick in a field loaded with up to five good QB prospects forecasted in numerous mock drafts to be taken in the first round.
Not saying a trade is happening, or even rumored. But if a veteran QB with Super Bowl experience can be had for a one-year, free-agent minimum salary, and his successor can be taken in the first round of the draft, the player-personnel world opens up for the Seahawks.
Perhaps if they knew Kaepernick will stand, the Seahawks might have to think about a bold leap into the future.