The NFL, Colin Kaepernick and the R-word

Colin Kaepernick in action against the Green Bay Packers in 2012. Photograph by Mike Morbeck

Colin Kaepernick in action against the Green Bay Packers in 2012. Photograph by Mike Morbeck

Well, thank God Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos beat Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers on “Sunday Night Football,” with Manning breaking Brett Favre’s record for most touchdowns thrown (508). All’s right with the universe – the universe that sees Colin Kaepernick as such a threat, that is.

All last week we had to hear how Manning, legend, is an elite pocket passer who knows how to read the field when he throws to receivers while Kaepernick, overrated upstart, is a hybrid QB – part running back, part major league pitcher – who may be excitingly unpredictable and talented enough but no Manning.

That may very well be the case, but what grates is that the argument seems to extend beyond football to the realm of the personal where race and sexuality intersect.

Let’s stay with football for a moment, shall we? In three seasons thus far, Kaepernick has put up numbers comparable to the first three seasons of the Niners’ last great quarterback, Steve Young, who was also a running QB. Indeed, Kap was about the only one who kept his injury-riddled team on the field at all in the abysmal 43-17 loss to the Broncos. So he’s the real deal.

But he’s not the real deal in a traditional way. He’s a QB who’s a brilliant runner in a sport where “running quarterback” is code for “black” (Michael Vick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton) and “elite pocket passer” is code for “white” (both Mannings, Peyton and Eli, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, etc.). QBs like Young or even to an extent Andrew Luck are the exceptions that prove the rule. Am I playing the race card? There’s no question that most running QBs are black and there’s nothing wrong with pointing it out. But in criticizing the role of the running quarterback in the NFL, you have to be careful not to denigrate those associated with the phenomenon. 

Plus, the running quarterback is an idea whose time has come, as no less than Brett Favre has pointed out. Disliking the idea of the running quarterback is like disliking baseline tennis. It’s your prerogative but that’s rather irrelevant.

The rise of the running quarterback, though, dovetails with the rise of the black athlete at a position that has traditionally been the preserve of (white) golden boys. Now we’re getting somewhere. Kaepernick is not only black or biracial (which is the same as saying he’s black. Nobody looks at President Barack Obama and says he’s a white president.) It’s the way Kaepernick’s black that gets under people’s skin, no pun intended. Not for him the Steve Erkel thick-framed glasses and bow ties of Cam Newton or the button-down polish of Russell Wilson. Kaepernick has biblical-themed tattoos, works of art, that coil about a sculpted frame that’s as cut as his beautiful bone structure. He’s not shy about displaying those tats and that body either in publications like VMan or ESPN’s Body Issue, conjuring the old fears of the sexualized black man, homosexuality (since the male is being offered up as object) and female sexuality (since many if not most of his admirers are women),

But tattoos conceal as much as they reveal. They cloak and arm even as they call attention. And when you know Kaepernick’s backstory you begin to understand why. He’s the child of a black father who abandoned his white mother, Heidi Russo, who in turn relinquished her child to another pretty blond nurse, Teresa Kaepernick and her husband, Rick. The Kaepernicks had two children followed by two male babies they lost to heart disease. Having another biological son would’ve meant risking the same fate. Hence the Kaepernicks desire to adopt. They sound like the kind of big-hearted people anyone would want to call “family.” Mrs. Kaepernick shared pictures and information about Colin with Russo until the latter found it too painful and broke off their correspondence. And when Colin began to wonder why he didn’t look like his family – thanks to “helpful” classmates and people his family encountered when they went out – Mrs. Kaepernick told her youngest child she wished she had “pretty brown skin” like his.

But the world is not a pretty place, certainly not the world of the NFL, where a plantation mentality persists with white male owners lording it over mainly black players when it comes to anything but what really matters. So Kaepernick can be fined for everything from wearing his pants too high to sporting non-sanctioned pink Bose headphones (a shout-out to his grandmother, a breast-cancer survivor) to using a racial slur. (The last is a good one.  Kaepernick was found not to have used the slur but was still fined half the amount, which is like being acquitted of a crime but still required to serve half the sentence.)

Thank God we are safe from these transgressions. But to deal with Ray Rice coldcocking his wife or Adrian Peterson taking a switch to his 4-year-old, no, the NFL can’t handle that.

Some in the media don’t help. I find it funny that The Denver Post – the hometown paper of the Broncos – ran an article prior to the Broncos-Niners game about Heidi Russo’s attempts to contact her biological son, who at this point wants nothing to do with her. It was like something out of the old Barbara Stanwyck tearjerker “Stella Dallas” – self-sacrificing mother, unknowing child. I’m not going to dignify the article with a link here anymore than I’m going to criticize Russo. I assume she’s sincere in starting an organization to help unwed mothers and in reaching out to “her baby boy” – although the aggressiveness with which she has done that suggests a self-centeredness that probably spurred her to give him up in the first place. (It was perhaps inevitable that one of the respondents posted a comment that said Kaepernick was “a bastard son, like Obama”).

Let me just say this: You cannot possibly know the devastation of having been rejected by the people who made you unless you’ve lived it. To say nothing of the practical considerations:  You lose your biological identity and a good deal of your psychological identity as well. When a doctor asks you if there’s a history of cancer in your family, you just don’t know.

What you do know is that you’re much like Quinn Novak, the hero of my second novel in “The Games Men Play” series, “In This Place You Hold Me” – uncomfortable in your own skin, an outsider with your nose pressed up against the window of everyone’s life, including your own, a fraud, no matter how brilliant and accomplished you are.

Kaepernick is said to regard the publicity on his birth mother as an attack on the woman he considers to be his true, self-sacrificing mother, of whom he’s very protective.

Is it any wonder that for all his intelligence and shy charm, he comes across in his NFL press conferences as guarded, defiant even?

Say instead that he is a man in full and take him for nothing more.

But certainly nothing less.