As Media Day conference calls go, this one topped them all. Generally, we get an opposing NFL player or coach issuing mindless platitudes about taking the games one at a time and expressing profound respect for the Bills.
Instead, we heard Colin Kaepernick talk about being disrespected by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He quoted the “Scientific Discourse on Pathology” on the historic tendency of white America to delegitimize black protest.
Kaepernick, who gets his first regular-season start for the 49ers on Sunday at New Era Field, did not back away from the major issues in his 10-minute session with the Buffalo media. He was smart, engaging and willing to entertain any questions about kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice in this country.
There’s bound to be a hostile reaction from the Bills crowd when Kaepernick takes the field Sunday as a starting quarterback. The joke making the rounds on social media this week is that Bills fans will sing the anthem when the Niners are on offense, so Kaepernick will take a knee. Yuk yuk.
Aside from Donald Trump, Kaepernick is the most polarizing figure in America. He has been
called a traitor. His jersey has been burned in effigy. He has received hate mail and death threats. Ginsburg called him “stupid” and “arrogant.”
“It’s disappointing to hear that from someone in her position,” Kaepernick said. “A Supreme Court justice who thinks it’s dumb for people to stand up to injustices that people are experiencing, and to oppression in this country – that’s very disappointing to see.
“As I was reading different articles, I came across one about the Scientific Discourse of Pathology,” he said, “and how the white critique of black protest has always been used to delegitimize what the protest is really about. Calling it stupid, dumb, moronic, idiotic – all of those things – are ways to sidestep the real issue, so you no longer have to address it.”
That was Kaepernick’s objective when he sat through the anthem before a preseason game – to make a statement about police violence and injustice against minorities in the country. He felt compelled to take a stand, to use his platform and his voice. Soon, other athletes, from fellow NFL players to grade-schoolers, joined in.
Kaepernick was a backup, a one-time rising star who had fallen on hard times in recent years. Some felt that minimized his stand and called it a selfish act by a player who had lost stature in his sport. But he has continued his protest, kneeling on the sidelines during the anthem to show respect for the armed forces.
Now, he’s starting and the spotlight will shine even brighter. While Kaepernick doesn’t feel the movement depends on him being a star in the NFL, he concedes that being a starter and succeeding in the country’s most popular sport can’t hurt the cause.
“I think regardless of my play, this movement is going to be legitimate,” Kaepernick said. “People’s lives are always going to be legitimate. They’re always going to be worthwhile. They’re always going to be worth fighting for.
“Now, if winning some games and playing well amplifies how much people want to listen to what I’m saying and fighting for, great,” he said. “But regardless of what happens on the field, there’s nothing that can delegitimize what this movement is about.”
Kaepernick said he’s excited to get back on the field as a starter this Sunday. He said answering the same questions he’s been answering for weeks won’t distract him from the task at hand – helping San Francisco snap a four-game losing streak.
“When I step foot in this facility every day, I step in here to play football,” he said from Niners headquarters, “and that’s what my focus is. In my spare time and when I’m asked questions about it, I’m going to answer, and answer honestly.
“I don’t feel pressure along with this,” Kaepernick said. “I think my voice is being heard. The voices of people are ultimately being heard.”
He has waited a long time for this opportunity. Kaepernick hasn’t started a game since a 27-6 loss at St. Louis last Nov. 1. The Niners, who were 2-6 at that point and had gone two games without scoring a touchdown, benched him for Blaine Gabbert.
Later in November, he underwent surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. After the season, Kaepernick asked to be traded and had meetings with John Elway in Denver. It appeared he would be heading to the Broncos, but the deal fell through.
Denver drafted quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round a few weeks later.
Kaepernick, 28, returned to the Niners and waited his turn. He is seen as an ideal fit for Chip Kelly’s offensive system, an uptempo spread attack that’s predicated on giving the QB a pass-run option on most plays.
Early in his career, Kaepernick was one of the most dynamic running quarterbacks in NFL history. He took over as QB during the 2012 season and led the Niners to the Super Bowl, where he threw for 302 yards and ran for 62 in a loss to the Ravens. Earlier in that postseason, he ran for 181 yards against the Packers, a record by a quarterback.
But he regressed over the years. Kaepernick, who went 19-7 to begin his career, was 3-10 in his last 13 starts before losing his job a year ago. But Gabbert was even worse. Through five games, Gabbert is next-to-last in the NFL in passer rating. Only the Jets’ Ryan Fitzpatrick is rated lower.
“I think everybody who saw Colin pre-injury understands the type of quality quarterback that he is,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He got hurt somewhere in the middle of the season last year, and had shoulder and knee surgery. I was excited to come here and work with Colin, along with Blaine.”
The Niners have nothing to lose at this point. They’re a bad football team, a poor passing team with a defense that struggles to stop the run. But Kaepernick makes them a potentially dangerous foe. A lot of people are rooting for him to fall on his face, so his teammates could be especially motivated to win for their embattled QB.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of people rooting for me as well,” Kaepernick said. “At the end of the day, I know what I’m doing is right and I’m doing it for the right reasons, so whatever the reaction or backlash or anything of those things are, I feel comfortable, because I know what I’m doing is right.
“It was a personal decision. I wasn’t going to stand up for a flag that oppresses people of color, particularly black people.”
I asked Kaepernick if he yearned for the days when he was a young playoff phenomenon, perhaps the most dynamic running quarterback the NFL had seen. Can he ever be that player again?
“We’ll find out on Sunday,” he said.
Imagine if he winds up kneeling at the end of the game, too.