Colin Kaepernick has overtaken the NFL

And what a sight it must have been – hop right on, folks, and see a cultural giant shrink before your eyes.

This performance should make for compelling drama. But the spectacle of a 34-year-old Kaepernick returning to a league that abandoned him feels regressive, like a longing for a less ambitious past.

Kaepernick no longer fits into football. Google, and the words “American activist” appear under his name. He stopped sneaking into the confined “soccer player” box years ago. As with a comfortable varsity letter jacket from his youth, he outgrew the game.

He lived by his beliefs and absorbed the feedback from NFL fans who wrapped their distaste for pro-black people in a cloak of red, white and blue patriotism. And league owners who disguised their payback — refusing to sign him as a free agent in 2017 and every year since — as proof that Kaepernick couldn’t cut him as a quarterback anymore. He knew then that his protest would cost him his career. But he won so much more.

After Kaepernick took his knee, along with the slings and arrows, other players felt emboldened that they didn’t have to stick to the sport. Over time and slowly, the embers of protest grew into a raging flame that the NFL could no longer extinguish or ignore.

History will always be kind to troublemakers who caused good trouble and revolutionaries who stood up for something and lost everything. And it will show how Kaepernick overcame and defeated the NFL — his combination draft and power dynamic he compared to the slave auction block in his Netflix limited series.

But now, watching Kaepernick do his best to return to a place he likened to a plantation feels like he’s stepping back.

What happened to Kaepernick’s career was an unforgivable sin committed by league owners. He should have been signed, even as a replacement, in the years since his protest. But being ostracized from the game allowed Kaepernick to grow his platform, and he proved he didn’t need the billion-dollar behemoth that is American football to change the sport.

He East an American activist, and much of his advocacy can be seen in his multimedia empire. Besides the Netflix series and Spike Lee joint, Kaepernick just released a children’s book for biracial adoptees struggling with their identity. But his brand now needs expansion.

Roaming the football fields with cameras in tow, looking for an NFL shot that will probably never come, Kaepernick remains limited in the role of Colin The Martyr. Perhaps there’s still an audience out there eager to learn more about his blackball all those years ago, but that undercuts the progress Kaepernick should want to make with his platform.

Imagine how much more impact he could have if he transformed from victim to leader. By waking up more young athletes of color to their agency or challenging politicians to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. By being fully invested and advancing the cause from the front – not as a back-up in someone’s quarterback’s room.

Colin Kaepernick is bigger than football. His knee is stronger than his arm. And the power he now wields as an emboldened, free-speaking reformer would be muted, reduced to a sideshow if he has to stand behind The Shield again.

For someone who built his brand on authenticity, there was something off about his performance on Saturday. Not in the way he threw the ball. During his show airing on Big Ten Network, his passes were zipped up and Kaepernick looked as sharp as you’d expect throwing bombshells at guys fresh off the streets. He still looked like an NFL quarterback. But there was something disconcerting about watching Kaepernick try to be who he once was when he could move on to much greater responsibility.

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