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Bucky Gleason: Kaepernick's rights as U.S. citizen mean little as NFL player

Bucky Gleason

No matter how clichéd, here is the cold truth when it comes to Colin Kaepernick and his inability over the past five months to land a job in the NFL: Playing professional sports is a privilege, not a right. And no matter how many or how loud his supporters, that's not going to change.

Kaepernick found out the hard way after sitting and later kneeling last season during the national anthem, a 16-game demonstration against social injustice and police brutality that struck a nerve across the country. Some were infuriated by his protest, while others applauded him for exercising his rights as a U.S. citizen.

Let's get two things straight. The NFL isn't the USA, and free speech sometimes comes at a very steep price. Kaepernick was entitled to speak his mind, but league owners were equally entitled to determine whom they wanted playing quarterback for their teams and representing their brands.

We're not talking about Muhammad Ali, who was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years for standing up against the government. He's now hailed as an American hero. Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for decades have been revered for standing tall against racial injustice.

Ali was a heavyweight champion. Brown and Abdul-Jabbar were heavyweights in their respective sports. Sad but true, their success allowed their voices to be heard. Kaepernick didn't carry anywhere near the same clout, in part because he didn't perform anywhere near their level. It was easy for NFL execs to ignore him.

Sports are about uniting people, about bringing players together while their fans join hands behind them. The last thing an NFL owner wants is an average player splitting people apart and creating a controversy over something that has nothing to do with football. It's bad for business and not worth the hassle.

And so he sits while waiting for a team understanding enough or desperate enough to sign him, knowing he'll draw unwanted attention and could lead them into a storm.

Bucky Gleason's Power Take: There's more than one reason NFL teams have passed on Kaepernick

Granted, this one doesn't make sense. Kaepernick didn't smack his fiancee in an elevator, the way Ray Rice did. He didn't accept a plea deal after being charged in the stabbing deaths of two men, like Ray Lewis did. He didn’t get caught up in a dogfighting ring, the way Michael Vick did.

Kaepernick's crime was second-degree social activism. If he were a gifted player who could carry a team to the postseason, he already would be in training camp. But when teams evaluated Kaepernick's value and considered the ruckus he could cause, well, that's when they  became uncomfortable and turned their attention elsewhere.

It's not just about the protest.

And it's not just about his ability.

NFL franchises make decisions based on numerous variables that make up the total package. Some apply directly to the team itself, such as ability and money. While they're projecting talent on the field, they're also examining potential for problems off the field. They're considering how decisions will affect other players on the roster and fans in the stands. They're thinking about winning, losing and the bottom line.

Just ask Tim Tebow, whose ability to excite the masses and unwittingly create quarterback controversies outweighed anything he accomplished on the field. Tebow might have been able to develop into a solid NFL quarterback over time. We'll never know. His career ended abruptly because teams decided he wasn't worth the headache.

Kaepernick's unorthodox playing style cannot be discounted, either. He's never been the most accurate passer in the league. Many teams want backups playing in similar fashion to their starter so they can make a seamless transition when needed. So far, for many reasons, every team decided he wasn't the right fit.

Bills GM Brandon Beane suggested on the first day of training camp that he didn't consider signing Kaepernick, even though the veteran QB's style matches up with Tyrod Taylor. Other teams needing backups took the safe route and snapped up quarterbacks who wouldn't cause a commotion.

Bills will go with three QBs in camp, haven't considered Colin Kaepernick, GM Beane says

Mike Glennon, who threw a grand total of 11 passes while backing up Jameis Winston for two seasons in Tampa, signed a three-year contract worth $45 million with Chicago. Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown are making $6 million per season. Former Bills flop EJ Manual found a new gig in very little time.

Kaepernick started 58 games over his final five seasons with San Francisco and helped the Niners reach a Super Bowl. Last season, he came off the bench of a terrible team and threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions in 11 starts. He rushed for 468 yards and scored two touchdowns. Most would agree that he can play in the NFL.

Last week, while pondering whether to sign Kaepernick after Joe Flacco injured his back, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said they were trying to figure out the right approach. "Pray for us," he said, via the team's website. So the owner was on his knees while trying to make a decision about someone criticized for kneeling?

Kaepernick: Buffalo was worst city to me

Sure, this whole thing is screwy. You knew that the minute the Ravens turned to Lewis for advice. But that doesn't equate to being blackballed. Eric Reid knelt beside him and still plays for the Niners. But even if Kaepernick was blackballed, he would be defenseless.

Nobody should forget that he opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March. He agreed to restructure his deal last season if they included an option year after 2016. He could have stayed in San Francisco, restructured his contract again and secured a job. He elected to become a free agent. He gambled on himself and lost. After a while, it's hard to sympathize with him.

We'll see how it plays out.

Abdul-Jabbar was among several former and current athletes who have come to Kaepernick's side. Writing for the Hollywood Reporter this week, Abdul-Jabbar suggested NFL players follow the lead of University of Missouri players who refused to play until the school's president was removed.

While he had good intentions, Abdul-Jabbar was dreaming if he thought NFL players would sacrifice paychecks because one player embraced a cause, surrendered his own job security and failed to find a job. Pro athletes can scream about injustice to Kaepernick if they choose, but they would be wise to re-read the first paragraph.

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