The legal battle between the National Football League and Colin Kaepernick is finally over.
On Friday, Kaepernick’s lawyer and the league released a joint statement that the two sides, which also included Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, “have decided to resolve the pending grievances” stemming from a collusion lawsuit the two players brought against the league and its owners in October 2017.
The statement ended by acknowledging a “confidentiality agreement” between the two parties, which means it will likely never be publicized what proof Kaepernick had against the league or what monetary amount he was awarded for dropping the grievance.
Despite the specifics, the settlement also may mean Kaepernick, just 31 years old, won’t play another down in the NFL.
And if that’s the result, it’s completely fine.
Starting with him kneeling during the national anthem in August 2016 in protest of racial inequality and police violence, Kaepernick has sparked change not only in the NFL but across the country, something neither an MVP campaign nor a Super Bowl championship could have accomplished. (For reference, 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes’ name has barely been mentioned since he won the award on Feb. 2.)
In just 2½ years, Kaepernick has done more for the national discussion on race and police accountability than any research article or presidential task force.
He’s donated more than $1.1 million, nearly 10 percent of the last salary he drew as a starting NFL quarterback, to social justice organizations dedicated to combating police brutality, mass incarceration, child hunger and homelessness. That’s a number that doesn’t include the record $89 million deal a group of NFL players struck with the league in November 2017 that helps fund organizations that address criminal and education reform and police accountability. As maligned as the Players Coalition agreement has been, that money never materializes without Kaepernick.
One knee forced nearly every segment of society to confront the plight of African-Americans, whether they wanted to or not. From professional leagues to youth leagues, school departments to police departments to the armed forces, it felt like everyone was asked their thoughts on that guy with the Afro kneeling during the national anthem.
The racial injustices he was fighting against escaped the confines of ESPN and other sports-centric mediums. Those spaces that normally could avoid acknowledging the presence of racial discrimination and race-based violence (the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, various universities and colleges, Jimmy Kimmel Live!) could no longer do so.
Just last week, a 10-year-old white boy in North Carolina kneeled while the rest of his Cub Scouts troop recited the Pledge of Allegiance at City Hall because he wanted to take a knee “against racial discrimination … which is basically [when] people are mean to other people of different colors.” That boy could have grown up in a “colorblind” society had it not been for Kaepernick.
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Even the Super Bowl halftime show, normally an apolitical display of pomp and circumstance, became a referendum of what it means to be an ally — or, in the case of Travis Scott, a “sellout.”
In his two years away from the sport, Kaepernick became bigger than any American professional athlete not named LeBron James. Despite his self-imposed silence, any nugget of information about him (A workout in Houston! An innocuous award ceremony! An ad campaign for a shoe brand!) would grind the news cycle to a complete halt. Even with an apparent consensus of Kaepernick fatigue as the months rolled on and more subpar quarterbacks signed with teams, and calls for everyone to just “stick to sports,” Kaepernick resonated. He had one of the highest-selling jerseys as a free agent. His Nike ad in September led to 3.4 million mentions of the shoe company on Twitter and helped bump its stock up by more than 6 percent.
Kaepernick is, like Muhammad Ali said of himself to Life magazine during his 43-month exile from professional boxing in the late 1960s, “Bigger than ever. … As big as all history.”
The heavyweight champion, heavily criticized in his time for standing up for his morals, said he was still happy despite being stripped of his title and boxing license for protesting the Vietnam War “’cause I’m free. I’ve made the stand all black people are gonna have to make sooner or later — whether or not they can stand up to the master.”
Kaepernick, as did Ali at the time, lost his battle against the sport he played for. But he stood up to a multibillion-dollar organization and, for all intents and purpose, won.
Kaepernick is now free.