Deion Sanders once had maybe the best line ever about loyalty in sports. It's succinct. It's beautiful. It's also incredibly true.
"It's hard for me to fathom," Sanders said not long ago during a player roundtable discussion, "that I gotta be loyal to you, when you're not loyal to me."
Sanders later added: "I can't love nothin' that can't love me back."
This brings me to Colin Kaepernick, who was just benched by the 49ers and almost certainly will be playing elsewhere next season, likely in a place like Philadelphia.
Kaepernick never learned the lesson that Sanders did. There is no loyalty in football. It doesn't exist.
Kaepernick got royally screwed by the 49ers for showing loyalty to the organization, and now, for doing that, he'll likely be out on the street.
Let me explain. We have to go back to June 2014 when Kaepernick signed what was trumpeted as a $126 million contract with $61 million guaranteed.
Those initial leaked numbers were, well, a total lie.
The contract, as several media outlets have reported and I confirmed with an NFL source familiar with Kaepernick's deal, was actually incredibly lopsided in favor of the team. It was not $61 million guaranteed, but instead approximately $13 million.
Also, what the 49ers basically did was make the deal like a series of one-year contracts. The salaries for most of the deal are guaranteed only after April 1. That date is important. Free agency begins March 12. So what the 49ers can do this season—and probably will—is utilize those nearly three weeks from the start of free agency until that April 1 date to find a free-agent quarterback while holding on to Kaepernick's rights.
It's clear why the team structured the deal this way: It wasn't sure about Kaepernick's long-term future. It was a smart move.
What's less clear is why Kaepernick would do it this way. Why would he sign such a team-friendly deal?
I believe it's because he was trying to help the 49ers. He was being loyal.
This goes with what one 49ers player texted to me this week when I asked him to tell me what Kaepernick's relationship with players was like in that locker room. Some in the media have called him arrogant, Fox's Jay Glazer reported that Kaepernick was "on an island" and B/R's Jason Cole reported that his "aloof attitude" has taken its toll in the locker room:
The player I talked to gave me a bit of a different perspective.
He called Kaepernick "incredibly shy" and said what some perceive as arrogance was really just Kaepernick being introverted. The real Kaepernick, the player said, is studious, professional and, more than anything, "a hard-core 49er. He bled 49ers colors. He loves the organization."
The player added, "It's why he signed that s--tty contract. He knew it wasn't good for him long-term, but he wanted to help the team."
Maybe you don't buy that, but you also cannot have it both ways. You can't portray Kaepernick as arrogant and selfish when he clearly signed a contract designed to be cap- and team-friendly. Want to say he just had a crappy agent? No agent is that inept. OK, most agents aren't that inept.
I believe he was being loyal to a franchise that had no interest in being loyal to him.
And for that loyalty, Kaepernick gets to sit on his hands while the 49ers look for his replacement. Meanwhile, teams that may want to sign him have to wait.
Kaepernick is being punished for being loyal to the 49ers when the 49ers, based on the contract, had no intention of being loyal to him. He got royally, totally and completely obliterated in this deal.
This is business. It's rough, I get that. The 49ers booted Joe Montana, and Jerry Rice ended up playing in Oakland. Johnny Unitas finished his career in San Diego. Emmitt Smith went to Arizona. On and on it goes. Players are treated like meat byproducts. They are asked to be loyal all the time while teams discard them at the first opportunity. So Kaepernick is the latest item on a long conveyor belt of players who were treated poorly by their teams.
Kaepernick got his job when the team benched Alex Smith for him. Kaepernick should have known then, but he still signed a deal that was basically destined to hurt him.
Sure, no one forced Kaepernick to sign the contract. And he made money off it. Good money. And again, the 49ers were smart to do what they did, and it turned out they were right to structure the deal that way. It was ruthless, but it was business.
Still...wow. The 49ers let Montana find another team without the sort of contractual tomfoolery that Kaepernick has to endure.
When coach Jim Tomsula this week spoke of the Kaepernick benching, his words were telling.
"Colin's going to keep fighting his way through everything," Tomsula said, according to a transcript. "I mean, the competitiveness in that guy is second to none. You all know that. And he wants to fight right through it.
"But Colin will be a tremendous teammate. He'll give everything to this team that he gives, and he'll keep working hard, and he'll prepare, and Colin will be a wonderful teammate."
Colin will be a wonderful teammate.
The 49ers know Kaepernick will still be loyal. He has every right to publicly rip the organization. His play has been far from exemplary, but the team also hasn't served him well. There's been both a brain drain and talent drain. The 49ers, especially ownership, have done nothing to truly replace all of that vacated talent.
I'd also argue that Kaepernick maybe isn't as bad as we think. His QB rating is 78.8 this season. That's bad—a career low—but Cam Newton's is 78.1 and people are talking about him as an MVP candidate. Peyton Manning's is 75.1, and he's not getting benched.
The difference: Those guys play on teams that are winning.
The 49ers have failed Kaepernick as much as Kaepernick has failed them. But Kaepernick won't cause problems because he's loyal.
He never learned what Sanders did. In the NFL, loyalty doesn't pay.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.