Colin Kaepernick isn’t even with an NFL team, yet he remains a deeply polarizing figure whose outspoken views and controversial decision not to stand for the national anthem last season continue to divide an already fractured nation.
From the average sports fan to the president of the United States, the mere mention of Kaepernick’s name elicits a wide range of opinion. Whether you think he’s a well-meaning advocate for civil rights or an unpatriotic American for taking a knee during the anthem, when it comes to the 29-year-old quarterback, the discussion is invariably intense and often heated.
John Harbaugh would like to believe the debate is at least tinged with nuance, not unbending views with no room for interpretation or balance.
Harbaugh may not always like what Kaepernick says or does, but the Ravens’ coach remains unwavering in the man’s right to his convictions. And though some believe the NFL has turned against or even blackballed Kaepernick, who remains unsigned, Harbaugh is convinced that we have not seen the last of him on a football field.
“I absolutely think he’s going to get signed,” said Harbaugh, whose brother Jim was the head coach when the 49ers drafted Kaepernick in 2011. “I’m a little surprised [he hasn’t been signed]. He will. He’s too good a player. He’s got to prove himself as a player, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. But someone’s going to sign him and he’ll play in this league, probably for a long time. I think he’ll probably be starting next year at some point in time and I think he’ll be winning games for people.”
But there have been no takers for Kaepernick thus far, which has heated up speculation about whether he is being punished for his political views. Complicating the equation is the uncertainty about how much money Kaepernick is looking for. Former NFL starters Geno Smith and EJ Manuel have signed bargain-basement deals with the Giants and Raiders, respectively, but there is speculation that Kaepernick is unwilling to accept a “prove-it” deal in hopes of getting another chance.
And so the debate rages on, with plenty of criticism lobbed at the NFL for what skeptics believe is an unwillingness to live with the potential controversy that Kaepernick’s mere presence could spark.
While many who engage in conversation about Kaepernick speak in absolutes and leave little wiggle room for interpretation, Harbaugh believes there should be a more nuanced element to the debate. He insists, therefore, that the idea that NFL owners and coaches are purposely not signing Kaepernick because of his political beliefs is “intellectually lazy.”
“These people [in the NFL] that make these decisions think about everything,” said Harbaugh, who spoke during the AFC coaches’ breakfast at the NFL owners’ meetings. “People just don’t go, ‘I don’t like the guy. I don’t like his political views, so I’m blackballing him.’ Nobody in this league makes decisions that frivolously. No one.”
Harbaugh believes Kaepernick still can play at a high level. He saw the quarterback at his best when the Ravens faced the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 season. Kaepernick led a stirring second-half comeback that fell short in a 34-31 Ravens win, a performance that convinced Harbaugh — who beat younger brother Jim that memorable night in New Orleans — that Kaepernick can recapture the form that made him one of the game’s most dynamic players.
“We saw firsthand in the Super Bowl how good he is,” Harbaugh said. “He’s super-talented. I’m sure he’ll be back on top of his game real soon.”
There is no denying that Kaepernick has to convince any would-be employer that he’s capable of returning to greatness. His game has languished the last three seasons, and he lost the 49ers’ job twice to Blaine Gabbert, a former first-round bust who also remains unsigned. Kaepernick showed some flashes last year, but not enough to convince a team to give him a lucrative enough contract.
“He’s got to prove himself as a player,” Harbaugh said. “He’ll be the first to tell you that. When you’re the quarterback and you don’t win, you’re going to have to answer for that.”
Bottom line: If Kaepernick can play, there eventually will be a place for him again.
“Colin is a good person. He comes from a good family. He’s passionate about what he believes in,” Harbaugh said.
The Ravens don’t have an opening at quarterback, with Joe Flacco and Ryan Mallett under contract. But Harbaugh insists Kaepernick’s political views wouldn’t be a deterrent to his signing.
“It wouldn’t be a problem for us in our organization,” he said. “We’ve been very clear over the years. Guys speak their mind in Baltimore. Everybody respects everybody else’s opinions on politics. It’s not going to impact how somebody plays. We can certainly disagree with anything, a political opinion or how a guy wears his socks. It’s not going to impact how I perform. But we’re allowed to have that conversation. That’s what America is.”
Which is why Kaepernick’s backers hope some NFL team will decide that what he does on the football field trumps what he says or does off it.