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Did Kaepernick sell out his legacy to the NFL?

He could play and use the NFL platform to advance the movement

A few hours after news was announced Friday that Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid had settled their collusion case with the NFL, social media was filled with opinions. Some were unhappy that the terms of the settlement, rumored to be worth between $60 million and $80 million, was attached to a confidentiality agreement that forbade either side from discussing the terms.

Some called Kaepernick a sellout, that taking money from the NFL was no better than Malcolm Jenkins and the Players Coalition.

The coalition accepted money from NFL owners effectively in exchange for stopping the on-field protests that were becoming so damaging. The difference is that the money Kaepernick receives is money he and Reid likely would have earned had the NFL not colluded to keep him out, though the settlement does not include an admission of collusion.

The larger question is what does this mean for Kaepernick’s immediate and future legacy. Has it been compromised?

Beginning in August 2016 when he first began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, Kaepernick became the face of the modern protest movement. He became larger and more significant off the field than he ever could have become on the field. He became the face of a Nike advertisement and was given awards.

Every time a lesser quarterback was signed and Kaepernick remained unsigned, his banishment became part of a damning narrative. As recently as last week, when Cleveland signed Kareem Hunt, critics blasted the NFL for opening its arms to a man who assaulted a woman but rejecting a peaceful, nonviolent protester.

All that stops now, especially if Kaepernick is invited to an NFL camp. Then the question becomes: Should he play football or should he walk away?

“What Kaepernick is going to do is become the Muhammad Ali of his era,” Harry Edwards said Friday evening during a phone conversation. “He’s got to come up with a great move, because what has happened now is that he has been defined, not by what he actually did, but by people’s perceptions of the relevance of what he did. He has to craft a post-take-a-knee movement presence and impact, and that’s tough.”

Kaepernick’s first extended thoughts will be laid out perhaps as early as this summer in a book that will detail the transformation that led to his decision to take a knee in 2016.

Had Tommie Smith and John Carlos, heroes of the 1968 Games, reached a settlement with the International Olympic Committee and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in a settlement, would they have a statue at San Jose State?

One problem with the Ali analogy is that Ali’s legacy was fueled in large part by his presence — and performance — in the ring. In the history of athletic protest, nearly every athlete who effectively protested did so from the winner’s pulpit.

Ali kept fighting — and winning. Ali’s greatest triumphs came after his banishment, when he returned to the ring, older and wiser and dominating a global stage. Pre-banishment, Ali was merely an entertaining boxer. Post-banishment, Ali became a moral force who stood up against the U.S. government, against war and won.

In mulling over the Kaepernick-NFL settlement and predicting how it might affect Kapernick’s legacy, consider a couple of possibilities. Had Ali reached a settlement with the U.S. government and boxing’s governing bodies, had he been allowed to fight instead of serving a three-year ban, had he been given hundreds of thousands of dollars in forfeited prize money he lost, had he agreed to military service, would he have become an icon?

Had Tommie Smith and John Carlos, heroes of the 1968 Games, reached a settlement with the International Olympic Committee and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in a settlement, would they have a statue at San Jose State?

Who knows?

Meanwhile, we’re eager to see Kaepernick’s next step.

“To get back there on the field, the risks are higher for Kaepernick than they were for Ali,” Edwards said. “I hope a team invites him to camp, but you have to know that there will be people who hope he gets a CTE hit every time the ball is snapped.”

And if Kaepernick, 31, fails to perform at a near-championship level, they’ll say, “That’s why he wasn’t on the field — he couldn’t play,” Edwards said. “He’s going to have to be shrewd about how he crafts his presence and his profile from this point going forward. He can’t be just another quarterback out there trying to win a game. He’s got to go out there and perform superlatively. He’s going to have to take somebody to a Super Bowl.”

Should he play and use the NFL’s platform to advance an agenda? Sports is the third rail of American culture; the NFL is a major cultural engine that rides that rail and for the last three years, Kaepernick has been that engine’s conductor.

If he is successful on the field, Kaepernick could mobilize fans and athletes in all sports to push for social reform and perhaps be part of a coalition to help make a change in the White House.

Should he play and use the NFL’s platform to advance an agenda? Or should he step away from an enterprise that, despite its overwhelming billions, has become so unclean?

Edwards said, and I tend to agree, that Kaepernick might be better served by holding a news conference and telling reporters: “I have other things I want to do, because I am not a football player. I’m a man and I have an entire spectrum of interests, one of them, at one time, happened to be football, and I was very good at it. But it’s time to move on.”

In a six-year NFL career, Kaepernick threw for 12,271 yards and 72 touchdowns and led his team to the Super Bowl. But if the NFL comes calling, as it likely will, Kaepernick should say no. That might be the most effective pass he never threw.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.