A little over a year ago, the 49ers were amidst a quarterback controversy due to our "two hot hands". Of course everyone had an opinion on it. After all, 49er fans had just rekindled our relationship with Alex Smith. We saw a different player under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh. When Colin Kaepernick came onto the field, there were heated debates about whether or not he could be the 49ers franchise quarterback.
Fans are an interesting species. Of all the positions on the field, fans are most desperate to connect with the quarterback. We want to believe our quarterback is as dedicated to the team as we are. As an example, when fans saw the grade school note Kap wrote about his desire to play for the Packers or the 49ers, we ate that up. When he wore the Dolphins cap, suddenly fans question his team loyalty "as the face of the franchise." Fans need to connect.
Last year, one writer went so far as to actually state professional quarterbacks should not have tattoos. The connection was absurd, but the writer equated tattoos with criminals and thuggery. Recently, a former NFL scout turned radio personality stated Kap needed to be more professional off the field. Namely, he stated Kap did not look the part of a professional quarterback and said it showed a perception of lack of intelligence. There was more, but all in all, it was a very shallow perception.
It is difficult to understand why there is more analysis on Kaepernick's appearance than his play. There is a consistent criticism of his sometimes-backwards, flat billed hat, his urban clothes, his headphones, and et cetera. The definition of what a professional NFL quarterback feeds directly into a stereotype. Deep in our sports psyches, fans have a vision of what a "professional" quarterback is supposed to represent.
Many in the mainstream media are spouting some prejudicial remarks about Colin Kaepernick and other athletes. They are getting away with it, because they are not mouthing old-fashioned epithets. Rather, they are using the new, slightly more subtle forms. And, if you ask them about it, they act surprised and remark, "Me? That is not racist." They assert they are only questioning his professionalism.
I believe the majority in society are fair and want the best person hired for the job (NFL or otherwise). At the same time, this county is relatively young when it comes to race relations. We are still dealing with the adverse affects of centuries of racial injustice. Most Americans do not overtly consider race when it comes to sports. At the same time, people need to understand how subtle prejudices are currently impacting minority athletes. Unfortunately, Colin Kaepernick is a victim of institutional prejudice and I will explain by way of a personal illustration.
I attended a university known for its liberalism. Yes, it is the college of choice for the bleeding hearts, tree hugging, bird seed eating people of the world. Sure, some of that rubbed off on me. However, I dislike politics very much. I do not identify with any political party. However, to this day, whenever I mention my university, people pigeon-hole me based on the stereotype of my school.
As I proceeded through law school and went on to interview, the most eager to interview me were law offices and sole practitioners in Marin County. It is probably the most liberal county in California. I found that absolutely fascinating, because I hate politics. As a bit of an experiment, I deliberately used Steph on my resume versus Stephanie, because well -- there are more males doing the hiring. Of course, I got the interviews. After all, according to my resume, I was just like them.
Now, project that same scenario to the NFL realm. Might a group of owners or coaches gravitate to someone like them? And who, just incidentally, are the same gender and race? If so, the choice would be made because the winning candidate had a higher comfort factor, simply fit in better, and put them at ease. At no point does the discussion in the job search discuss race. Simply put, there is no blatant discrimination of any kind, but the results are the same as if there were. This is known as institutional prejudice.
Because this kind of discrimination is neither intentional nor overt, it is harder to combat. Within the 49ers history, we have seen an attempt to combat institutional prejudice well before it became a regular topic of league-wide discussion.
Bill Walsh's other legacy
Bill Walsh is known as one of the best strategists in NFL history. He popularized and perfected the West Coast Offense and raised the standard for an organization that had zero titles before his arrival. But, that is not all.
The NFL is a very exclusive industry. Jobs within the NFL are largely based on who you know. This is especially true for coaches, assistant coaches and office personnel. Walsh knew minorities had a difficult time getting in the NFL door. There was no overt discrimination. But, just like any institution, Walsh saw minorities (despite their skill-set or qualifications) precluded from a whole profession. Minority coaches were not given the chance to even interview or discuss their qualifications, simply because they did not know anyone.
Today, who do you see getting head coaching interviews? It is the assistant coaches and coordinators. The problem was there were no minority assistant coaches to promote. There was no intentional desire to keep an entire race of men out of the sport. It just happened coaches hired assistants who they knew or identified with. And, at that time, minorities just did not fit the mold of an NFL coach. Many were told they simply did not look the part.
Bill Walsh knew the effects of institutional prejudice within the NFL and formed the Minority Coaching Fellowship program. It was the first of its kind in the NFL. Tyrone Willingham, former head coach at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington stated, "Bill put in place a program for minority coaches to educate them to the full scope of being an NFL coach, [and] everything that happens behind the scenes. That program really changed the landscape."
Walsh's program allowed participants to experience all aspects of being an NFL coach, from administrative duties to film and player evaluations. It was eventually adopted league-wide and over the years has produced some of the most accomplished coaches in the game.
John Wooten is the Chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. He has been involved with the NFL for almost 50 years, beginning when he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. The Fritz Pollard Alliance works in conjunction with the NFL as it relates to the minority in coaching, scouting and front office positions. Wooten stated "[Walsh] has done as much as anybody in terms of promoting minorities, and not just coaches but front-office people. The minority internship that the league adopted -- it all started with him."
Decades ago, Wooten worked as a scout for the Dallas Cowboys. He founded a program that worked to create summer internship opportunities for black coaches. And one day, he received a call from Walsh.
"Bill said, 'I know what you're trying to do. If there are any young coaches we can help you with, I'll bring them to the 49ers and we'll train them,'" Wooten said.
Walsh knew the NFL had a stereotypical definition of professionalism. In order to change the landscape, people had to redefine the term in the NFL. The internship Walsh created was different and should not be confused with the Rooney Rule. In essence, the program went beyond providing interview opportunities. It was about giving minority coaches the skills to grow their opportunities to advance within the NFL on their own.
I believe society, as a whole, is moving past racial injustices. Still, we have to look deeper at racial subtleties. The criticisms of Colin Kaepernick's choice of urban attire not directly discriminatory but has a discriminatory effect, whether intended or not. The media is not criticizing his play, they are criticizing his appearance against a stereotype of a traditional white quarterback.
Colin Kaepernick: The perceptions and the reality
I've noticed the argument the urban clothes are reflective of a generation gap, rather than a race one. Maybe this is a localized phenomenon. In most parts of the country, the urban style is far less common as people get older. However, in the case with young minority athletes, it is the opportunities presented during their youth which matter the most. Despite the generation gap, the stereotype still has a discriminatory effect on minorities.
On the field, Colin Kaepernick meets the uniform guidelines set forth by the NFL and his team. Off the field, Kap identifies himself by wearing urban clothes. It is just part of who he is and asking him to conform to a stereotype set forth by those in control of the NFL decades ago is the epitome of institutional prejudice.
Last offseason, Kaepernick made an appearance in ESPN the Magazine's Body issue. As part of the promotion, he took part in a wide-ranging interview that included questions about outside perceptions of him on and off the field (see video above). When Kaepernick was asked about the clean-cut (face of the franchise) stereotypes, Kap said, "I think it's a perception that's been around for a very long time. It's a perception that I want to break. I don't want people to think you have to look a certain way or be a certain mold to be able to be a quarterback." Further, he stated:
"I don't ever want to take it to a race level. But, I mean, even with a lot of the quarterbacks in the league who are black, it's ‘oh you're a black quarterback,' or ‘you're just a running quarterback.' And I think that's another stereotype that I really I feel like I'm trying to break.
Kap's position on his appearance and refusal to fit in the mold is supported by the rich legacy left by Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers. Walsh saw the importance of changing the landscape in the NFL. He realized if we really wanted diversity within the league, fans had to change our perceptions of professionalism. And well, that starts with bringing down stereotypes. Now another member of the 49ers is trying to break more, even the subtlest of stereotypes.
If we are really going to discuss Kap as a professional, the criticisms are going to have to be more sophisticated than urban clothes and backwards caps. After all, anyone can wear a suit. Clearly, Kap has no desire to change who he is and seeks judgment based on his play and his leadership abilities, not his appearance. Listening to Colin Kaepernick's words to Russell Wilson, encouraging him to "go get that ring" following the tough loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship, told 49ers fans everything we need to know about his true professionalism.
Last Sunday, Sherman attacked wide receiver Michael Crabtree and gave Kap the "choke" sign after the game-sealing interception. As a true leader, Kaepernick spoke up for himself and his receiver. While he may have poured some gasoline on an already burning rivalry, he really distinguished himself as a true leader in his own way. Kap is willing to put himself in the line of fire on behalf of his team.
His redefinition of professionalism in the NFL has superseded the old, boring narrative of being a suited "professional" ten fold. As we appreciate the legacy left by Bill Walsh, it gives me pride as a 49er fan to see our quarterback changing the stereotypical perception of what a leader is within the NFL.