Sports Nut

He Doesn’t Fit the System

Anonymous NFL execs say they’re not blackballing Colin Kaepernick. They’re just racist.

Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III
What do Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III have in common?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images and Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images.

With a week to go before the start of the NFL regular season, Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned. In an “investigation” for Sports Illustrated’s MMQB—one that begins, helpfully, with the Merriam-Webster definition of blackball­—Albert Breer explains that Kaepernick’s “situation is more complicated than many want to concede.” Breer quotes three NFL executives and one coach, all of whom were “granted anonymity in pursuit of honesty.” None of the four said his anthem protests played a role in their decision not to offer him a contract. All four said that Kaepernick simply isn’t a good on-field fit.

Although Breer doesn’t seem to understand what these answers show in aggregate, you don’t have to be a scholar of critical race theory to understand what’s going on here.

Here’s the source Breer calls “Executive 1”:

Physically, Kaepernick’s more talented, but familiarity with a backup at that position, knowing exactly what you’re going to get, is more important than the “wow” factor. … It’s like with [Robert Griffin III]; you had him playing a certain way, and he was a hell of a player. But as soon as defenses figured out what they were, and a specific way to play them, that’s where they had to be able to start to win from the pocket. If you can’t do that in this league, it’s tough.

And Executive 2:

For us, it was a system thing. What he does well is totally outside what most teams do. And so here’s my question: I understand the Kaepernick deal, why it’s news, but nobody’s talking about RG3? I know since it’s Kaepernick, it’s what sells, but the problem that RG3 has getting a job is the same as Kaepernick for a lot of teams.

Executive 3:

I don’t like the guy as a player. I don’t think he can play. …  He’s inaccurate, inconsistent reading defenses. … And you consider that, why isn’t there a debate about RG3?

In three separate conversations, three different executives made the same comparison between Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. On one level, it’s strange that they all said the exact same thing. On another level, it’s not strange at all.

Why isn’t it a scandal that Griffin remains unsigned? Because every advanced stat in existence shows he was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL last year. Also, the injury-plagued Griffin got hurt and missed 11 games after he’d been plugged in as the Cleveland Browns’ starter. It’s not Griffin’s fault that he injured his shoulder. Even so, he’s been bedeviled by injuries throughout his career and has only played five games in the past two seasons. I would not be super excited to sign Robert Griffin III circa September 2017.

Kaepernick wasn’t exactly Tom Brady last season, but he was a lot better than Griffin. At this stage, Kaepernick has the skills and résumé to be an NFL starter, and he has a track record of good health. Griffin has none of those things. That’s how the quarterbacks are different. Here’s how they’re similar: They’re both black.

If you think race isn’t relevant here, take a listen to Breer’s anonymous coach:

[Kaepernick is] not a pocket passer. So if you bring him in as a backup, and you’re not Seattle or Carolina, and you don’t have those things built in, it’s like you’re running a different offense with your 1s and your 2s. Mike Shanahan had a great theory on this—he wanted to draft Russell Wilson (in 2012), because if something happened to Robert (Griffin), the transition would be clean and easy. So Kaepernick almost has to be in a place where they’ll build a system for him, and teams don’t do that for backups.

Seattle and Carolina are quarterbacked by Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, both of whom are black. So Kaepernick is not being blackballed. It’s just that the only place for him in the NFL is as a backup quarterback on a team with a black starter.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the idea that Kaepernick isn’t a natural fit for the NFL is based on the outmoded belief that black quarterbacks are necessarily “mobile quarterbacks” and that they need specially engineered offenses to showcase what they do best. But as SB Nation’s Stephen White has shown, “the overwhelming majority of passes that [Kaepernick] threw last year came from the pocket.” In addition, Kaepernick performed better from inside the pocket than he did while throwing the ball on the run.

These notions of what Colin Kaepernick can and can’t do, then, are not based on what Colin Kaepernick can and can’t do. Rather, they’re distillations of decades of received wisdom about what players who share Kaepernick’s skin color can and can’t do. (And that’s the case, by the way, even if one or more of these anonymous NFL power brokers isn’t white.)

Near the bottom of his Kaepernick item, Breer quotes an unnamed AFC executive who says that “at the end of the day, we’re part of the ultimate meritocracy. So if someone feels like this guy can help win games, he’ll be in the league.” Ah, yes, the ultimate meritocracy, a league in which 70 percent of the players are black and the overwhelming majority of quarterbacks are white.

Thanks to Breer’s story, it’s now clear that some proportion of NFL decision-makers think Kaepernick and the league’s other prominent unsigned black quarterback are exactly the same. There’s only one word that describes that line of thinking, and it’s not meritocracy.