If anyone has earned the right to condemn the NFL’s mistreatment of Black players, it’s Colin Kaepernick. And he’s no longer mincing words. In “Colin in Black and White,” a Netflix miniseries he co-produced with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Kaepernick provocatively likens the NFL draft to slavery.
Since the end of the 2016-17 season, the NFL has seemingly blackballed the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback for exercising his constitutional right to take a knee during the national anthem and protest police brutality and systemic racism. His peaceful protest was distorted by former President Donald Trump and Commissioner Roger Goodell and enabled by the NFL’s rich, powerful and (mostly) white team owners.
Kaepernick, 34, may never play another NFL game. But he seems at peace with that. Honored around the world for his social activism, the former quarterback is now telling his story his way.
Don’t get it twisted. Kaepernick’s slavery comments were meant figuratively. He knows that players choose to work in the NFL while enslaved people had no such choice. But he also clearly believes Black players should know what they’re getting themselves into. He sees the league as an institution that appears to value subservience and punish independent thought.
Kaepernick, biracial and adopted at 5 months old by a white couple in Milwaukee, wasn’t willing to make such a compromise.
In a scene from the miniseries, Kaepernick is dressed in black, with an Afro framing his face. As he condemns the NFL draft, we see a depiction of a slave auction juxtaposed with images of white coaches examining Black bodies.
“What they don’t want you to understand is what’s being established is a power dynamic,” he says. “Before they put you on the field, teams poke, prod and examine you. Searching for any defect that might affect your performance. No boundary respected. No dignity left intact.”
In addition to the poking and prodding, the psychological testing and the strength and speed drills, the NFL draft combine is also where Black men have endured humiliation in interviews with team officials. A Miami Dolphins executive once asked star wide receiver Dez Bryant whether his mother was a prostitute.
“I got mad, really mad,” Bryant said later. “But I didn’t show it. I got lots of questions like that.”
And then there’s this question to defensive back Eli Apple: “So, do you like men?”
The blackballing of Kaepernick and his former 49ers teammate Eric Reid effectively ended pregame kneeling and sent an unmistakable message that players of color have no rights that an NFL team feels bound to respect. And in that regard, each team operates somewhat like a plantation.
In his book “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” journalist William C. Rhoden cogently made the connection between well-paid Black athletes and their forced subservience to white team owners and their lack of autonomy.
“The power relationship that had been established on the plantation has not changed, even if the circumstances around it have,” Rhoden wrote.
Kaepernick’s slavery comparison expands on that argument. It exposes a 32-team league in which 70 percent of the players are Black yet there are no Black owners and only one Black president (Washington’s Jason Wright), five Black general managers (Miami’s Chris Grier, Cleveland’s Andrew Berry, Washington’s Martin Mayhew, Detroit’s Brad Holmes and Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot) and five head coaches of color (Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Miami’s Brian Flores, Houston’s David Culley, Washington’s Ron Rivera and the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh).