Los Angeles (AFP)
One year after refusing to stand for a rendition of the US national anthem in a pointed protest at racism and police brutality, Colin Kaepernick finds himself frozen out of the NFL.
The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback convulsed America's most popular sport last year with his decision to sit through the playing of the Stars and Stripes, triggering a raging national debate about race and patriotism.
Initially, when Kaepernick chose to remain seated for the anthem during a pre-season game against the Houston Texans on August 14, and again against Denver six days later, the 29-year-old's protest went unnoticed.
Yet an un upswell of outrage erupted after he sat again during a game against Green Bay, and by the time he elected to take a knee during the anthem against San Diego on September 1, a foaming tsunami of opprobrium was heading his way.
Legions of critics, including future US President Donald Trump, branded the athlete a traitor unworthy of US citizenship. "Maybe he should find a country that works better for him," Trump remarked.
At the other end of the spectrum, Kaepernick's defenders hailed the quarterback as an American hero, a civil rights icon willing to risk a lucrative career by drawing attention to the rights of oppressed minorities.
- 'Career wilderness' -
Fears that Kaepernick may be placing his own career in jeopardy through his political activism appear to have been well-founded: 12 months on from his first protest, the quarterback is in the wilderness.
In a sport where competent quarterbacks are prized more than any other players, Kaepernick's unemployment is strikingly anomalous.
It was only four years ago that Kaepernick shined in a thrilling Super Bowl comeback with the 49ers, coming within a whisker of overturning a 22-point deficit against the Baltimore Ravens while passing for more than 300 yards.
But while free agent Kaepernick -- who in March assured potential future employers he would no longer protest the anthem -- has failed to find a team willing to pick him up, dozens of less accomplished practitioners have found themselves being offered contracts.
The fact that the Los Angeles Rams hired Dan Orlovsky as a back-up, a 33-year-old journeyman most famous for going 0-16 with the Detroit Lions in 2008, is evidence, for some, that Kaepernick is being blackballed by the sport.
That viewpoint was given further momentum by reports that Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh -- the brother of Kaepernick's former 49ers coach Jim -- and general manager Ozzie Newsome were keen to sign the player but had met resistance from team owner Steve Bisciotti.
Kaepernick's continued isolation has prompted some players, such as Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin, to revise their opinions.
"My original position was I thought that the situation last year with him taking a knee didn't have anything to do with it," Baldwin said.
"After viewing what's going on, I've got to take that back. I definitely think that the league, the owners are trying to send a message of, 'Stay in between the lines.' It's frustrating because you want to have guys who are willing to speak out about things that they believe in, whether you agree with it or not."
- 'Not about football or color' -
Baldwin's team-mate, the reliably thoughtful, articulate Richard Sherman, is in no doubt that Kaepernick is paying the price for his activism.
"What is it about?" Sherman said. "It's not about football or color. It's about, 'Boy, stay in your place.' He may not be the best, but he's better than a lot of these dudes starting."
For others, the fact that Kaepernick remains unemployed while the NFL continues to offer a pathway to redemption for players accused of criminality, remains particularly galling. The New York Giants signed kicker Josh Brown to a new contract after he was arrested for domestic violence, and continued to employ him following his suspension last year before he was later released.
Yet Giants owner John Mara, who has acknowledged that negative fan feedback was a factor in Kaepernick's inability to find work, denies that the quarterback has been unfairly ostracized.
"Anybody that thinks that there's been any conversations going on among teams about Colin Kaepernick is crazy," Mara told ESPN radio's Michael Kay Show. "That just is not the case ... I think there are certain issues obviously that go along with Colin Kaepernick and that may have scared some teams away, but there is absolutely no blackball going on here. I just don't see that at all."
Plenty of players remain unconvinced however that Kaepernick's fate is unconnected to hisprotest.
"I think it shows the racial divide in the league," Seattle defensive linchpin Michael Bennett told USA Today. "There are rapists and drunk drivers in the league. Kaepernick didn't do anything. That's why racism is the biggest issue in America."
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