Colin Kaepernick kneels on the sideline during the anthem prior to...

Colin Kaepernick kneels on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium on October 2, 2016. Credit: Getty Images/Thearon W. Henderson

MIAMI — One play. Five yards. A flag that wasn’t thrown.

Seven years ago at the Super Bowl, history was made when a 49ers receiver, unable to break free from the prying hands of a harassing cornerback, could not grab a pass on fourth-and-goal that would have given San Francisco the go-ahead score late in the game against the Baltimore Ravens.

The Niners lost that game, 34-31, and were relegated to the forgettable list of very good NFL teams who came in second place. For the man who threw that pass, Colin Kaepernick, things have never been the same.

The same could be said about the NFL.

The 49ers made it back to the Super Bowl this year, but Kaepernick had nothing to do with this trip. His name has barely been mentioned. In most instances, this would simply be another example of the relentless churn of players through a league that chews them up and spits them out. But at 32, Kaepernick could, conceivably, be in his prime. Instead, he has been out of the league for three years.

And yet, if there’s a single player who brought this league to a point of reckoning — who exposed it for what it is, what it is not, and what it could still be when it comes to shaping conversations about the American experience — it is that now-unemployed quarterback out of Nevada who came within five yards of winning the Super Bowl in 2013.

“By losing that job, he gained a legacy, a career,“ said Marcus Hunter, chair of the department of African-American Studies at UCLA. “Now, he has more than a job. He’s an activist-minded thought leader about the state of race in America. A lot of young people, including a lot who I teach, often find themselves sitting there waiting to see what he is going to say.”

Instead of being forever known as a Super Bowl champion, Kaepernick will go down as the quarterback who kneeled — first during the national anthem before a preseason game — to spark one of the biggest controversies in the NFL’s 100-year history and, in turn, to bring what looks like a premature end to his own career.

He explained his low-key decision not to stand in 2016 as a way of underscoring his disdain for social injustice in America, a country where blacks are targeted and arrested by police at alarmingly higher rates than are whites.

The decision drew the support of fellow players, dozens of whom initially joined him in his show of protest.

It drew the ire of a certain cross-section of the country, stoked in part by President Donald Trump, who infamously wondered out loud at a political rally about how nice it would be for an NFL owner to point at a kneeling player and say, “Get that son of a . . . off the field right now.” Not long after, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a game involving the 49ers, several of whom supported Kaepernick’s cause and kneeled during the anthem before a game against the Indianapolis Colts.

It forced the NFL into a series of uncomfortable decisions, first in an attempt to simply tamp down the discord about kneeling, then later to try to get on board with Kaepernick’s cause, albeit with an unspoken hope that the protests come to a halt.

“He clearly drew attention to a societal problem which needs to be addressed and that we haven’t addressed,” said Alan Page, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman who went on to a career as a Minnesota Supreme Court justice. “There’s value in that. The problem is, we get sidetracked, I think, in focusing on things that aren’t really relevant to the problem. We get sidetracked on flags and all that.”

Also sidetracked: Kaepernick’s career.

Though it’s hard to imagine that not one of 32 teams could find a place for a quarterback with potential to disrupt defenses with both his arm and his legs, a quarterback who, to this day, has the sixth-best TD-to-interception ratio in NFL history, a quarterback not far removed from bringing a team within five yards of winning the Super Bowl.

He filed a grievance against the league, claiming the teams colluded to keep him out, and the parties eventually reached an undisclosed settlement.

In one of the more bizarre 24-hour news cycles of the past season, the NFL arranged a workout for Kaepernick in Atlanta that all teams were welcome to attend. But unhappy with caveats and rules the league placed on the workout, Kaepernick abruptly pulled out of the NFL-sanctioned event and arranged a different workout in another location. Only a handful of teams sent scouts, and the day ended with everyone’s intentions in question.

Did the NFL really want to help Kaepernick?

Did Kaepernick really want to play again?

“We’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running, stop running from the truth, stop running from the people,” Kaepernick said that day. “Around here, we’re ready to play, we’re ready to go anywhere.”

But it went nowhere.

Before that, the NFL, well aware of the need to address Kaepernick’s off-the-field concerns, began pumping money into his social-justice cause, to the tune of $25 million so far with over $60 million more promised. It teamed with an activist-minded group composed of a few dozen players who called themselves The Players Coalition. That group, however, did not include Kaepernick, who went his own way after a series of contentious meetings with the leaders who ended up as the backbone of the Coalition.

The NFL named the program “Inspire Change.” The league has been running a commercial through the playoffs, with another airing scheduled for the Super Bowl, in which former wide receiver Anquan Boldin, a founder of The Players Coalition, tells the story of his cousin getting shot and killed by a plainclothes police officer in Florida.

The irony isn’t lost that the NFL is getting credit for advancing a cause spurred by a player who cannot get a job in its own league.

“Doing the right thing for whatever reason is always a plus,” Page said of the NFL. “I’ve gotten beyond trying to ascribe people’s motives. What’s important is they do the right thing.”

What there is no definitive answer to, though, is exactly what the “right thing” really is.

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