Kaepernick’s Protest Cascades Into Protests Over His Job Situation

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The most talked-about N.F.L. player this season may not even be taking the field.

The player, Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, caused conflict last season by kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality and racial oppression. He inspired several other players to follow suit or make similar gestures, leading to debate about whether athletes should publicly engage in political discourse — and how actively.

But now, as teams prepare for the start of the regular season on Sept. 7, Kaepernick is a free agent without a team. And while he is not at the top of his game, as he was when he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl four years ago, many analysts believe teams are refusing to sign him because of his political nature, not his ability.

With the nation consumed by racial division and discussion, the Kaepernick protests have spread beyond football, drawing more people not associated with the sport to speak out.

The latest demonstration took place on Wednesday in Manhattan when a dozen groups including Justice League NYC and Color of Change rallied in front of N.F.L. headquarters. Several hundred Kaepernick supporters showed up, holding signs and chanting “I’m with Kap.” The event’s speakers took the N.F.L. to task for a lack of racial sensitivity and Kaepernick’s continued unemployment.

“First, we are here because we believe Colin Kaepernick deserves a job,” said Symone D. Sanders, the former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. “We also believe that the N.F.L. has been complicit in the ostracization of Colin Kaepernick. And today, it is time for the N.F.L. to take a stand.”

Although he did not organize the Manhattan rally, the filmmaker Spike Lee lent his support to it in a tweet a couple of weeks ago.

“I Did Not Organize And Set Up This Protest,’’ he wrote. “However I Still Support My Brother And His Stance On The Injustices In The USA.”

The N.A.A.C.P. wants to meet with Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the N.F.L., to discuss Kaepernick’s absence from an N.F.L. roster.

“No player should be victimized and discriminated against because of his exercise of free speech — to do so is in violation of his rights under the Constitution and the N.F.L.’s own regulations,” Derrick Johnson, the organization’s interim president and chief executive, said in a letter to the N.F.L. commissioner.

Just as Kaepernick’s protest drew criticism, so did the rally in support of him. A small group of protesters stood across the street, some holding signs in support of the police.

“They are alleging that there is racism involved in Kaepernick not signing in the N.F.L., but he’s a free agent to sign or not sign,” said Karen Braun, who was among the counterprotesters. “Was race the intent? No one can prove that.”

On Monday, in the largest on-field demonstration yet, a dozen Cleveland Browns players knelt during the national anthem, while several other players stood next to them in solidarity. In contrast to last season, when Kaepernick and a handful of black players refused to stand during the anthem, the group included white players.

Goodell has insisted that the league’s 32 teams are not banning Kaepernick. But the issue has put Goodell in the awkward position of defending owners and coaches who have twisted themselves in knots defending their decision not to sign Kaepernick, a quarterback who, unlike the two dozen or so who have been signed so far this year, has led a team to a Super Bowl.

From Baltimore to Miami to Seattle, teams in need of starting or backup quarterbacks signed players with either little experience or a mixed track record, and had to explain, often awkwardly, why they had passed over Kaepernick, who opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March. The Dolphins even coaxed Jay Cutler out of retirement.

Kaepernick and the anthem-kneeling dispute that he inspired are just the latest in a series of headaches for Goodell and the N.F.L., which is in the spotlight again for its handling of players who are accused of domestic violence, for its handling of concussions and for its harsh stand against the use of marijuana, which some players contend is a safer alternative to the highly addictive painkillers that teams dispense.

The continuing debate over whether players should or should not stand for the national anthem, though, is perhaps the most explosive issue facing the N.F.L., which celebrates patriotism and military service like no other league. The anthem-kneeling that Kaepernick inspired has divided fans like few other issues and has shown signs of chipping away at the league’s bottom line.

Television ratings at every one of the league’s network partners fell last year for the first time, and while the reasons for the decline are complicated — including the presidential election and the absence of recognizable stars like Peyton Manning — some fans said they had stopped watching the N.F.L. because Kaepernick and other players knelt during the anthem.

As the controversy continues into its second year, more fans who look to sports for a diversion from politics could turn away as the season progresses.

Andrew McCarthy, a contributing editor at National Review and a former federal prosecutor, seemed to speak for many disaffected fans when he wrote on Twitter this week that the anthem protests had made him less interested in watching N.F.L. games. He justified his decision this way: “Because I am like millions of people who love football as an escape from politics but won’t if it no longer is,” he wrote. “Makes me very ordinary.”

Goodell has said several times, as he did on Wednesday during a meeting with Lions fans in Detroit, that there has been no coordinated effort to prevent teams from signing Kaepernick, and that if a team needed a quarterback with his skills, it would sign him.

“I think every one of our teams will do what is in their best interest to put a winning team on the field and to do what they really are hoping to do, which is create a franchise that is winning,” he said. “And if they see that opportunity, they’ll do that.”

But he has also had to walk a fine line, supporting players who are protesting while appeasing fans who are against them. On Wednesday, Goodell tried to frame the protests as a way for the players to express how much they care about their communities.

Keith Sirois, a restaurant executive and Lions fan who asked Goodell about the protests, was unconvinced. Why, he wondered, does the league crack down on how players celebrate in the end zone or how they wear their uniforms, yet not require that players stand for the anthem? He was not opposed to the players’ messages. He just did not want to see them expressed at a game.

“He’s in a bad spot,” Sirois said of Goodell.

Events, though, may be outpacing Goodell’s efforts to address them. The number of players who have knelt during the playing of the anthem has grown. So has talk of wider protests in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Va., where this month neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotesters. This has given life to an issue the league hoped would go away, further dividing fans.

“It certainly has become a big part of the conversation around the N.F.L. and the current season,” said Daniel Adshead, a Browns fan who supports the protests. “I think it wouldn’t be as much of a distraction had Colin Kaepernick found a team by now. People seem to like the status quo, and they don’t like change and seeing instability.”