President Trump has endorsed Colin Kaepernick’s return to the NFL. Yes, you read that right.
Nearly three years after Trump used Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem as dry tinder to fire up his base, the president said on Wednesday that he “absolutely” believes Kaepernick deserves another chance in the NFL.
“I would love to see him get another shot,” Trump said, in response to a question about Kaepernick from Sinclair’s Scott Thuman. “Obviously he has to play well. If he can’t play well, I think it would be very unfair.”
And thus we enter yet another Rorschach moment for this president. How you viewed him prior to today is how you’re going to view his statement on Kaepernick, a man whom Trump once, in effect, called a “son of a bitch.”
In other words, choose your own interpretation of Trump’s statement backing Kaepernick:
- Trump favors meritocracy. You’ll note that the president said “If he deserves it, he should [get another chance,] if he has the playing ability.” It’s a simple, straightforward enough statement, one that Trump has made before.
“Frankly, I’d love to see Kaepernick come in if he’s good enough,” Trump said last August. “But I don’t want to see him come in if somebody thinks it’s a good PR move. If he’s good enough, he will be in.”
- Trump sees the way the wind’s blowing. The NFL has moved definitively in Kaepernick’s direction. Roger Goodell has encouraged teams to sign Kap, while a recent Yahoo/YouGov poll shows a majority of Americans now support a player’s right to protest. Trump, like most politicians, stuck his finger up, felt the breeze, and moved in that direction.
- Trump used Kaepernick before for one purpose, and he’s using him now for another. There's a needle to be threaded here, between angering his base and corralling enough votes to win in November. By sticking with the "good enough" line, Trump supports Kap's right to play on merit without supporting his chosen form of protest. It’s a ploy that gives him all kinds of wiggle room in every direction, and it won’t be a surprise if he says the complete opposite two months from now.
What’s interesting is that, for as much as Trump criticized Kaepernick, it’s clear the president has paid attention to the arc of Kaepernick’s career. “He was terrific in his rookie year,” Trump said Wednesday. “I think he was very good in his second year, and then something happened so his playing wasn’t up to snuff.”
That’s pretty close to exactly on point. Technically, Kaepernick played three games his rookie season, backing up Alex Smith, but in 2012, his first full season at quarterback, he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl. The next year, he led them back to the NFC championship. But the 49ers then fell off a cliff, stumbling under head coaches Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly and going five straight seasons without reaching the playoffs until last year’s Super Bowl run.
It was in the midst of that dry stretch that Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism, the exact same forces now driving nationwide protests. Kaepernick knelt beginning in the 2016 preseason; after that season, he was told he would be released, and so he opted out of his contract to give himself more time to land with another team.
That time now stands at three years, three months and counting.
Six months after Kaepernick opted out of his contract, Trump used his protests to whip up crowds at political rallies. Calling anyone who protested a “son of a bitch” and suggesting they should be fired, Trump incited a full-throated culture war against the NFL, complete with jersey burnings that left the league and its owners flailing and desperate.
But that was then. If and when Kaepernick returns to the NFL, critics will condemn him and his past protests. But this time around, they might not have an ally in the president. Or they might. You never can tell.
The NFL has all but acknowledged what anyone with access to box scores has been saying all along: that Kaepernick wasn’t out of the league for football reasons. Separate studies by The Washington Post and SB Nation demonstrated that Kaepernick, as of the end of the 2016 season, possessed skills that put him, at worst, in the very middle of the pack among starting NFL quarterbacks … and well ahead of most signed as backups in his wake.
Now? Now, it’s debatable whether he has the skills to make a return to the league. His workout in November was inconclusive at best. The game moves fast, and no matter how many motivational slogans Kaepernick may post on his social media accounts, there’s nothing to compare with live in-game action to take the measure of a quarterback’s skills.
Counterpoint: At 32, Kaepernick’s younger (and, obviously, fresher) than Brian Hoyer, Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees, all of whom ought to have significant roles under center in the NFL this season. Matter of fact, Kaepernick is 10 years younger than Tom Brady.
Does Colin Kaepernick deserve a roster slot? Nope, nobody deserves anything in the NFL. But when even President Donald Trump is saying Colin Kaepernick deserves a chance, well … it might be time to bring him into camp for a workout.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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