Colin Kaepernick
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during pregame warmups during a game against the Atlanta Falcons on January 20, 2013 at the Georgia Dome. PHOTO: Seatacular

Football player Colin Kaepernick, the sometimes quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, made a bold social statement in August when he refused to rise for the national anthem at the start of an NFL game.

Kaepernick, who is biracial, protested to demonstrate his concern over multiple police shootings of black men.

His act sparked controversy among fans and a tremendous amount of debate in the media.

The fallout was immediate and split people along several predictable social fault lines: race, patriotism, politics. Depending upon who you spoke to, Kaepernick was honorable for standing up (or sitting down in this case) for the rights of black people in America; others saw him as a highly-paid, entitled athlete showing disrespect for everything the American flag stands for.

As could have been expected, veterans and police officers took particular umbrage to the protest.

Kaepernick Brand: A Fumble or a Score?

Kaepernick has made it clear, as reported in USA Today following a drubbing at the hands of the Buffalo Bills, that his stand against the National Anthem was not intended to be un-American or unpatriotic in any way.

In fact, as if to remind the public about other past socio-racial protests, Kaepernick recently wore a Muhammad Ali t-shirt in homage to the boxer’s broader social impact on the world, including his once controversial conversion to Islam and refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.

In Kaepernick’s post-game interview, he made it clear he views his controversial stance and his ability to express it as part of what makes America.

By fighting to hold the country to the standards of “liberty and justice” for all people regardless of their race he is hewing to a long tradition of progressive protests that make the country, fairer, stronger and more inclusive.

Impact on Football Fans

Kaepernick’s brand stakeholders — made up mostly of fans but also includes NFL team owners and the omnipotent Roger Goodell — have the most potential to impact the outcome of Kaepernick’s protest.

Thus far, NFL owners and Goodell have chosen to respect Kaepernick’s right to express his socio-political opinion, assuming of course he keeps to the League’s overall personal conduct standards. NFL management doesn't want to be on the “wrong side” of a protest given that the majority of its players are African American.

The fans are actually the most volatile variable in the equation.

Early on in his protest, videos of fans burning Kaepernick jerseys made it onto TV news reports to document the outrage those fans felt at his perceived lack of respect for the American flag and National Anthem.

On the flipside, many other fans rushed to his support and catapulted the QB’s jersey sales to the top of the NFL.

A Question of Authenticity

Kaepernick’s brand is not intrinsically linked to concerns of inner city blacks.

Kaepernick grew up with loving (albeit adopted) parents from a more economically privileged background than many inner city blacks. As such his protest has the ring of insincerity in some people’s eyes.

It also remains to be seen if the financial fallout from the “Kaepernick Effect” — viewership is down by double digits year-over-year according to an article by Sporting News — will be anything more than a temporary dip stemming from a small number of less tolerant fans.

If the downturn continues or worsens, there could be an effort by the NFL to address Kaepernick’s protest.

But a move like that would come at the risk of backlash from an even greater number of black football players, the vast majority of whom have chosen to remain neutral — not to mention the NFL's fan base and the media, which won’t hesitate a second to point out the league’s double standard.

Kaepernick’s Brand Legacy

When his career is over, Kaepernick could very well be remembered less for his on-field exploits — especially given his recent poor performance at a starter — and more for his use of the “bully pulpit” in the form of his celebrity athlete status.

Whether he ends up having the effect of a Muhammad Ali is yet to be known. If he was one of the top QBs in the NFL admired as much for his exceptional passing ability as his passion for the plight of inner city blacks then it could very well be the case.

At this stage, however, it’s hard to see that happening.

Many view the plight of inner city blacks as a powder keg ready to explode over the next shooting of an unarmed black man.

It’s entirely possible, however, that by keeping the protest in front of so many fans and media outlets the conversation on how to de-escalate police violence will grow more profound and lead to positive changes in police-community relations in inner cities.

Kaepernick would almost certainly get some credit for this outcome.

Brand Remains Strong

Ironically enough what may lend credence and support to Kaepernick’s protest came in the form of a formal apology from the head of a major police union for “the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society's historical mistreatment of communities of color."

Was this part of the ‘Kaepernick effect’ or just a reflection of a growing racial zeitgeist bubbling up in the wake of violent clashes between protesters and police? Undoubtedly the later but Kaepernick has played a key part in keeping the problem front and center.

Despite still receiving the occasional death threat, Kaepernick shows no sign of backing down.

While he doesn’t have as many high profile product endorsements as he used to — a result of his diminished on-field performance prior to his protest — his brand appears to be going strong. And while he still has many detractors, history may prove his friend and assign his protest similar value to that of Ali’s now iconic protest.

If Kaepernick stays active in the NFL and remotely productive as a quarterback, then he can use his brand not only for his personal economic gain but also for help in accomplishing his socio-political ambitions.

Fortunately, American Sports Capitalism is big enough for both.

Title image by Seatacular