In the past three years, Colin Kaepernick has become one of the most prominent, and influential, public figures in American culture, even if he is rarely seen on a TV screen.
His infrequent appearances convey a magnanimity. He has walked the red carpet of the Met Gala, been given a standing ovation at the U.S. Open in tennis and appeared in an award-winning Nike ad, while deliberately dressed in clothes from black designers or perhaps in a T-shirt that displays an icon of the civil rights movement. He has become a towering figure in the fight against social injustice and police violence toward people of color in large part because he has been denied the chance to do the job that he devoted most of his life training for: N.F.L. quarterback.
“He’s bigger than the N.F.L.” said Shana Redmond, the author of “Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora.” “He doesn’t need this job back in order to continue being the formidable thinker and activist that he’s become.”
Now he has been invited to audition for the N.F.L. on Saturday, despite, or maybe because of, his high profile as a banished athlete. The opportunity, though, has been shrouded in confusion befitting the league’s mishandling of Kaepernick and the player protest movement he inspired.
The conditions of the invitation leave serious doubt as to whether the league has extended it in good faith. It is not clear who the attendees will be — general managers and head coaches or scouts who do not have the authority to make an offer. On Thursday, the N.F.L. released a statement confirming that 11 teams would attend and that Hue Jackson, the former Cleveland Browns coach, would lead the drills.
There is also the question of whether Kaepernick will even go through with it. The only public confirmation of his participation came from his Twitter posting on Tuesday that said he “can’t wait to see the head coaches and G.M.s.”
The workout itself is governed by parameters — day, time, location — dictated, on four days’ notice, by the N.F.L. and which Kaepernick and his representatives tried, to no avail, to change. The leap of faith involved seems entirely borne by Kaepernick. And yet, with the prospect of a future no doubt filled with book deals and appearances, Kaepernick has lobbied to re-enter the N.F.L., via his social media accounts and through his representatives, despite the potential for football injuries, negative public reaction or damage to his status as an iconoclast hero.
“Going back into the cage, so to speak, is a big decision,” said Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, in a telephone interview. “And I think that many of us who understand where athletes are coming from, the love of their sport and the desire to play, often supersedes other considerations.”
Kaepernick’s signing with any N.F.L. team will likely stoke vocal reaction from a population that views him either as a hero or a pariah. About 57 percent of the general American population is aware of who he is — recognition in the same range as that of Kylie and Kendall Jenner — according to the most recent data, in August, from the Q Scores company, which measures the consumer appeal of notable personalities. But Kaepernick’s negative Q score of 49 percent, which measures how many people rated him “fair” or “poor,” is nearly five times higher than his positive Q score.
Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Q Scores, said Kaepernick’s nationwide appeal is “clearly” split along racial lines. Black people are four-and-a-half times more likely than non-blacks to view him favorably, while non-blacks make up a majority of people who view Kaepernick negatively.
Suiting up again would re-expose Kaepernick to a vein of criticism that has been reserved for mere mortals whose careers are defined by calculable outcomes on the field. N.F.L. quarterbacks win or they lose, they play well or they do not. If a team deems Kaepernick ready to play and signs him based on his performance on Saturday he will again be talked about within football circles. Whether he is his old Super Bowl-contending self is unlikely to sway public opinion of him, especially if he continues to kneel as his close friend Eric Reid has done since joining the Carolina Panthers.
“It’s like any other labor dispute that you can enter into negotiations with your employer and resume work, that’s to be expected,” Redmond said. “But then there’s also the political issue and I think so much of the circumstances of his ousting from the N.F.L. had to do really with politics and him resuming work with the N.F.L., should that happen, has not resolved any of the political issues that cast him out of the league in the first place.
“And so I think the question will be to what extent will he continue to speak to those political issues and put pressure on his employer as actually participatory in the systems that make black people more vulnerable, brown people more vulnerable, to violence and poverty,” Redmond said. “And it seems clear to me that he understands that and I expect that he will continue to be the type of political figure that he has been but time will tell how his supporters, how those communities will follow him, will respond.”
And if Saturday is a bust, the N.F.L. gets proof of what it has argued — that only skill and market interest are keeping Kaepernick out of the game. Then, conceivably, there’s no reason for anyone in the football world to have to address questions about Kaepernick anymore. The N.F.L. gets to move on.
It is nearly impossible for icons to descend from their pedestals and have the chance to remount them. But there’s potentially no descent involved for Kaepernick. He has shown that he will continue to work on behalf of social justice causes regardless of the attention that follows him because or in spite of it. The N.F.L., however, will have finally burnished him as a cultural figure rather than a sporting one.