From Superstar to Outcast

With all the serious issues facing the National Football League—including traumatic brain injury, domestic violence, and shrinking television ratings—it’s ironic that the one receiving the most media coverage and league-wide consternation right now involves a quarterback who didn’t stand for the national anthem…last year!

Colin Kaepernick is a lightning rod for the NFL, its fans, and the media. Considered just four years ago as the league’s rising star, and potentially “one of the greatest quarterbacks ever” in the words of analyst Ron Jaworski, Kaepernick can’t find a job. Back in March, when his $14.5 million salary became too expensive for the 49ers to carry, Kaepernick decided to

opt out of his contract before he was to be released.

Since then, a number of journeymen quarterbacks with inferior statistics and much less upside have been claimed by NFL teams. It’s become a media feeding frenzy to identify teams needing quarterbacks, question team ownership on whether Kaepernick will be signed, and compare his statistics and playoff record to the poor unqualified souls who eventually are chosen over him.

How did we get to this point? A little history might be in order.

Back in 2010, when I served as executive director of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (now the Foster Farms Bowl), we had a contract with the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) entitling us to select one of their teams to play in our bowl game at AT&T Park. In fact, we had the first pick of teams from the conference.

That year, before the onset of re-alignment that would alter the landscape of college football and doom the WAC, the conference included powerhouse Boise State. Boise brought a No. 3 national ranking and 24-game winning streak to a Thanksgiving weekend matchup with No. 19 Nevada, led by its dazzling quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. The Broncos hoped that a win would propel them to either the BCS National Championship Game or, because of a post-season scheduling oddity that year, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Instead, Kaepernick led Nevada to a thrilling 34-31 win in overtime, dashing Boise’s hopes for the top bowl bids, inserting Nevada into the national picture, and providing us with an intriguing choice—Boise State or Nevada? It quickly became clear that Boise and its fans were emotionally devastated by the loss to Nevada, didn’t want to come to San Francisco, and preferred going to an early post-season game so they could get out of Dodge (that year our game was scheduled on Jan. 9). After much internal debate and discussion, we made the call to pick Nevada. Our feeling was that Nevada was excited about coming to San Francisco (a four-hour drive), had a marquee player we could promote, and would sell a lot of tickets.

It turned out to be a very wise decision. Nevada brought the whole state down to the game. The Wolf Pack Athletic Department sold over 16,000 tickets, and another 5,000 were sold through the box office at AT&T. We had a sellout and Nevada came through by beating Boston College in a well-played, competitive game.

My purpose in telling this story is that we asked a lot of Colin Kaepernick in the lead up to that bowl game. We flew him down from Reno in early December for a day of press conferences, TV and radio interviews, and VIP dinners. Then, during bowl week, we asked him to do media events and appearances non-stop.

He was amazing. A total pleasure to deal with. Warm, outgoing, and engaging, and very respectful of bowl officials, media, sponsors, and volunteers. In 14 years of running the bowl game, I can’t think of anyone who was more cooperative or did

a better job for us than Colin Kaepernick.

That’s why I was so surprised when, after he became a star with the 49ers, his demeanor changed so dramatically. He was uncooperative and surly with the media, often giving monosyllabic answers, to the point where reporters would calculate the total number of words he’d speak during a 30-minute press conference. I assumed he must have been getting bad advice either from his agents or an overprotective, media-averse coach (Jim Harbaugh). Whatever the cause, his behavior was 180 degrees from what our local media, bowl volunteers, sponsors, staff, and I had experienced.

Last year, when Colin kneeled for the anthem, I saw another side of him. Suddenly, the difficult, unresponsive quarterback had become an activist. His teammates applauded his courage, awarding him the coveted Len Eshmont Trophy. Despite the team’s pathetic 2-14 season, he had a decent year, passing for 16 touchdowns, throwing only four interceptions, and occasionally flashing the running skills that had made him a superstar.

But that didn’t stop the 49ers from planning to let him go, or 31 other clubs from failing to pick him up, including more than a half-dozen in dire need of a qualified backup.

Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about Kaepernick’s behavior. There is no question that his concerns about racial inequality in America are valid, and his courage in calling attention to the issue should be applauded. His work in kids’ camps, $1 million dollar contributions to charities, and meetings with law enforcement to discuss police brutality are also commendable.

But he has opened himself up to fair criticism with unfortunate wardrobe choices, including anti-police “pig” socks and a Fidel Castro t-shirt. His switch to an exaggerated Afro seems a bit calculated. Not to mention his disdain for voting in elections, the foundation of our democracy, and praise for the late Cuban dictator.

Wherever you come down on Kaepernick, it’s a sad story for the player and the league. If owners are afraid to sign him because of potential backlash from their fans, they should admit it, rather than cowering behind absurd excuses—“we’re not sure he really wants to play” or “his style is different from our starting quarterback.” The bottom line is, a once-promising career appears finished, for reasons that reflect poorly on all involved.

Last week the NFL Players Association awarded Kaepernick their “Week 1 MVP” award for his work with underserved communities. It’s a shame he couldn’t have won it on the field.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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