Seemingly Blackballed by the NFL, Is Colin Kaepernick Welcome in Canada?

Gerald Narciso@@geraldnarcisoFreelance contributorOctober 24, 2017

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick smiles after the 49ers' 22-21 win over the Los Angeles Rams during an NFL football game Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Up until last week, the man who first took a knee had been giving the world the silent treatment. 

Even as NFL players knelt in stadiums across America, as President Trump scoffed at them, essentially labelling them a "son of a bitch," and as seismic debates ensued on every network from CNN to Fox News—Colin Kaepernick evaded the bait, opting to let his charitable contributions do the talking.

The onetime rising star and franchise quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers is, of course, without a job.

He has been living in New York City, keeping a low profile and working out, only to occasionally publicly surface at small community events and on TMZ. He has turned down or ignored media requests since January. Even his social media presence has been sparse. An Instagram like here, a retweet there—most of which are related to his equality and social activism instead of his football career.  

So, it's been difficult to gauge Kaepernick's feelings every time quarterback-thin squads such as Miami, Tennessee and Green Bay pass on him.

Despite public pressure to sign Kaepernick, who threw for 2,241 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016, 32 NFL owners have dodged the move so far, under the guise of making football decisions.

Now, Kaepernick is calling them out.

On Oct. 15, through his famed lawyer, Mark Geragos, the 29-year-old Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL and its team owners, alleging collusion. They accused the league of essentially cohesively agreeing to blackball him.

While the complaint may force the NFL to be held accountable for collaboratively conspiring, it will likely eradicate any future Kaepernick might have still had in the league.        

John Bazemore/Associated Press

But as they say, as one door closes, another often opens.

Quietly in the past month, interest has started to brew in the Canadian Football League for the 6'4", 230-pound quarterback who seamlessly blends size, skill and athleticism. On Sept. 27, it was reported the Montreal Alouettes—who hold Kaepernick's CFL rights—had reached out to him.

"There's been no conversation about Colin coming here," Alouettes general manager and interim head coach Kavis Reed told the Canadian Press. "It was just to let them know we had his rights and if there was anything they were interested in to get back to us."

"There's been no call back from his agent. ... That's where it stands."

For now.

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The Friendly Nation

During halftime of the game between the BC Lions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sept. 22, the concourse inside Vancouver's BC Place transformed into a sea of orange. Fans draped in Lions gear with beers in tow were as loud and festive as you would imagine for a Friday night game.

Amid the crowd, standing by one of the gates, were two diehard Lions fans, who were also women of color. They had been following the Kaepernick narrative closely and were so passionate about the social impact of the controversy they even discussed it on a podcast they recorded the day before.

"He brings something to the game besides just a skill set," said Judi Lewinson, 40. "It reminds me of classic sports when it was about folks who had character, who stood for something. Whether you agreed with them or not, they had a principle that they stood with, and they didn't allow money to sway their beliefs. I think that is something that is very important as we move forward in sports today."

Added her friend, Yvanna Headley, 44: "When he decided to get political, the entire nation threw him to the curb, and I think that is absolutely ridiculous. I think it's unpatriotic to not support someone who is just explaining their own personal beliefs."

Both women said they would love to see Kaepernick in the CFL, even if it was in Montreal instead of Vancouver. But they also agreed he should be playing in the NFL, where he is proven and is still more than qualified to play. Lewinson looks at Kaepernick as someone Canadians would embrace and display empathy for.

"When you look at what's been happening in a broader political and social justice sense in Canada," she said, "I think this would be a safe space for him to stand up and say what he has to say and understand that there are people who will also champion that message."

Other fans, however, have reservations.

"I would think for the most part we would [support him]," said Lions fan Craig Murchie, 63. "Just being us, our polite selves, if you will. But there will be people who will be very opinionated against him. It's not a race card; it's that he was being a traitor to his country, and that's kind of the baggage he wears now."

Murchie, who is white, believes a Kaepernick move to the CFL would generate the same media circus as down south.

"Oh, it would be a gong show. It would be a distraction," he said in his thick Canadian accent. "And he'd have to prove himself so many times on the field."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

Whether Canada is that "safe space" Lewinson described or merely a smaller version of the United States with identical problems, many in the league believe Kaepernick would be well received by the Canadian contingent.

The CFL has done its part to demonstrate inclusivity in the past month. Many of its players have shown support for the leaguewide protests in the NFL. During NFL Week 3, players from the Saskatchewan Roughriders locked arms prior to their game against the Calgary Stampeders in a show of solidarity and to support players in their neighboring league.

Randy Ambrosie, the CFL commissioner, sounded like Canada's Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he said in a statement, "Regardless of whether we liked it or agreed with it, we would absolutely respect our players' right to express their views."

Added Tiger-Cats defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock: "I know [the United States] are going through their own struggle a little bit with the division of race and things like that. I know right now it's a big issue. Not to say we don't have our own issues in Canada as well, but I know we would welcome Colin Kaepernick. He would only be a positive for our league."

According to a 2006 census, only 2.5 percent of the population in Canada is black. However, Toronto and Montreal are known as multicultural hubs with sizable black populations. Though Hamilton is an hour's drive outside of Toronto, Whitlock said he has been embraced by the locals and was impressed with the area's diversity.

While many black players enjoy playing in Canada, they are still occasionally subjected to the same racial profiling Kaepernick is speaking out against in America. Lions running back and UNLV product Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is from Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, and said Canada is far from perfect.

"I have had a few, I guess, getting pulled over for a speeding ticket, racial profiling or whatever," said Murray-Lawrence, 23. "But so does every black person in this locker room. Doesn't matter what country it is."


Planting a Seed

Before Kaepernick became arguably the face of the modern-day civil rights movement, he was a bright-eyed redshirt freshman at the University of Nevada. Being biracial and having been adopted by a white family, he was still in search of his identity in the fall of 2006.

"Colin was always trying to figure out where he fits in all this," said John Bender, a college teammate. "There were people who were racist towards him that were white people, and there were people who were racist towards him that were black people."

Bender and Kaepernick, who grew up in central California, arrived in Reno the same year. Both were redshirts, both were business management majors and both were friends—and still are to this day. At the time, Bender noticed equality issues were already on his friend's mind, as Kaepernick would often confide in him about his struggles growing up.

REGINA, SK - OCTOBER 13: Members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders link arms during the national anthem in a show of unity with NFL players before  the game between the Ottawa Redblacks and Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium on October 13, 2017 in R
Brent Just/Getty Images

"If you go to hotels with your family for a baseball or basketball tournament and a security guard consistently stops you because you are a black teenager behind a white family, I think sooner or later that wears on you," said Bender, a native of Calgary, Alberta. "Sooner or later, you are tired of racial profiling."

Their play flourished as their collegiate careers progressed. Bender, the 325-pound offensive lineman, earned All-WAC first-team honors as a senior, while Kaepernick, the NFL-destined quarterback, was twice voted WAC Offensive Player of the Year.

In 2010, Bender was drafted by his hometown team, the Stampeders. The 49ers snagged the versatile Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, but he had been placed on the BC Lions' negotiation list—negotiation lists consist of college and international players whom CFL teams claim—in 2010. That small, insignificant connection between the two was enough to generate some trash talk.

"I joked with him and said, 'You don't want to go there because I'll be your dad that will beat you for many years' and 'You don't want to play for the BC Lions because the Calgary Stampeders always beat them,'" said Bender, 30, who lives in Calgary.

Bender played just two seasons in the CFL before retiring and becoming a financial planner. But in those seasons, Kaepernick always checked up on his Canadian friend, curious about the differences in play, primarily the larger field, the larger ball, that seemingly endless end zone.

Canadian culture also intrigued Kaepernick in college.

"I remember giving him a breakdown of differences that I know between Canada and the U.S.," Bender said. "And I could talk to others on the team about that, but they never really listened and said, 'America is the greatest' and that's the end. Colin would sit down and say, 'Oh, I can see how that is important to your culture, why that's important to your society.'

"I think the wisest people are the people who can see both sides."


Making the Jump

In terms of its relationship with the NFL, the CFL has served as a launch pad for future NFL stars (see: Warren Moon and Cameron Wake), a hub for borderline NFL players and a final destination for those who fizzled out (see: Vince Young and Chad Ochocinco).

Kaepernick fits none of those parameters. His free agency is more a result of politics than on-field performance. At 29 years old and injury-free, Kaepernick is arguably is still in his prime, which naturally makes him an attractive prospect for CFL teams.

"The size of the field and the spread, wild shootout that is a CFL game—he's wired for that kind of game," a CFL offensive coordinator said. "His arm strength and ability to move in the pocket...he would be exciting to watch in this league, and it would be great for the game."

The perception of Kaepernick has not seemed to faze CFL front office personnel.

"I would take Kap in a heartbeat," a CFL director of scouting said. "The little subtleties of the game would take a bit for him to get used to, but with time and the proper coaching, Kap would do really well in our league."

American players in the CFL also believe Kaepernick could fit up north.

"I don't see why not," Lions fullback Rolly Lumbala said. "He's an elite player, he played at a very high level in the NFL, played in the Super Bowl, he has all the intangibles."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Lumbala, who played against Kaepernick in college while at the University of Idaho, believes Kaepernick would quickly adapt to the wider fields, the shorter play clocks, the unlimited motion before snaps and everything else that makes the CFL unique.

"There would definitely be some adjustments," he said, "but from what I've seen, he's a great competitor; smart guy as well."

Said Whitlock, a Texas native who played for the New York Giants in 2015: "I think anybody coming from the NFL who is willing to work and adapt to this culture can play here. It's still just football."

While the football is relatively similar, the economics of it are not. The average salary in the CFL is around 80,000 Canadian dollars—compared to an average salary of 1.9 million U.S. dollars in the NFL.

"I don't think Colin will go up there making more than 100,000 to 110,000 CAD in his first year—and that would probably be a pretty high contract," said a U.S.-based football agent who has several clients in each the CFL and NFL. "The CFL does not care about players who played in the NFL and how many years. To them, you are a rookie in their league and in their system."

Star power does not necessarily equate to leverage, according to the agent. Kaepernick's representatives could negotiate living and car arrangements and an opt-out clause if the NFL were to recruit him back. But a CFL team would likely be unwilling to appease any high-dollar salary demands.

"He can't play hardball," said the agent, who added 200,000 CAD would probably be the max amount Kaepernick would receive. "It's just a downside of being in Canada for the first contract."

The agent believes taking the leap would be worth it. He has seen many of his clients use the CFL as a steppingstone to get back into the NFL as well as to keep their skills sharp.

"I think if you sit out too long, then you just start losing your timing and stuff like that," he said.

He has also seen the egos of his clients get in the way. Many players, he said, believe it is the NFL or nothing.

"Players think the Canadian league is this completely inferior talent pool," the agent said. "Then they come up there and realize, 'Holy crap. These guys are just as good as down south.'

"I'll tell you this: The high-level talent in the CFL is better than the mid- to low [talent] in the NFL. The NFL teams are quick to write players off. Every year, you have new shiny toys coming out of college football."

But even if Kaepernick accepts these terms and could theoretically be a great CFL quarterback, it doesn't mean he ever will. CFL negotiation lists and rights often hold as much weight as a fantasy football league. After all, it was rumored Cam Newton was once on Toronto's negotiation list, and Russell Wilson on Saskatchewan's.

This is the reason—other than tampering—why team and league officials are hesitant to comment on what ifs.

As Paulo Senra, director of communications for the CFL, put it: "Unless or until Kaepernick indicates an interest in the CFL, or a CFL team pursues him, it's a hypothetical, and we don't generally deal in hypotheticals."


Crossing That Bridge

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

So far, Kaepernick and his agent have ignored the Alouettes' calls. They have also ignored Bleacher Report's calls for this story and seemingly every other journalist trying to get his reaction to the kneeling firestorm, Trump's remarks and his professional football future.

One person he has not ignored is his old college buddy. The two talk at least monthly, sometimes more frequently. Bender has not seen Kaepernick in person in more than a year, when he traveled to Seattle to watch Kaepernick's team play the Seahawks.

This was at the height of the controversy over his kneeling. Bender asked his friend if he was worried about the death threats and what he had gotten himself into. In typical fashion, Kaepernick nonchalantly responded, "Nah, I'm fine."

Bender recently brought up the CFL topic again with Kaepernick. At the time, it was being speculated that the Tiger-Cats had strong interest. Bender would send Kaepernick links to articles and even a Wikipedia page of the city of Hamilton.

"Thanks, man, I appreciate that," Kaepernick responded, per Bender.

"Did you even know you're on Hamilton's list?"

"I know."

"Is that something you are interested in?"

"You know, I haven't crossed that bridge. I haven't thought about it too much. I'm focused on getting an NFL contract."

But reality has kicked in since that last discussion with Bender. Kaepernick has not seen as much as a tryout, and now there is a lawsuit—one that has the potential to get ugly.

As Week 6 turns into Week 7, and Week 7 turns into Week 8, the NFL is proving that life goes on after Kaepernick. Even if the league is reminded of him with every national anthem, every newly injured quarterback and every time he dominates a CFL game possibly one day. 

That's the thing about the NFL. It can ignore, too.


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