Is Colin Kaepernick too much with us? He is still looking for a job as an NFL quarterback and is still in the news because he is still looking. The national controversy and conversation that he ignited last year with the San Francisco 49ers, by taking a knee during the national anthem before each game, continues, carrying into the Eagles' locker room Tuesday at the NovaCareCenter. Complex.
At first, Kaepernick could not have been clearer about his reasons for his protest. He told NFL.com in August that he was "not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."
Yet over time his actions became a Rorschach test for whoever happened to have an opinion on what he was doing - which is to say, everyone. Did you understand and acknowledge the problems that Kaepernick was highlighting? Did you understand and acknowledge the counterarguments to his position? Were you sufficiently woke? Did you want to make America great again? Did you commit the great and ironic gaffe of booing or heckling Kaepernick during the anthem? Did you just want to watch the games? Your answers said as much about you as they did about him. Especially, no matter what your answers were, if your answers devolved into digital, or actual, screaming.
So what do Torrey Smith's answers say? He had been Kaepernick's teammate for the previous two seasons in San Francisco, and over his six years as an NFL wide receiver he has long been outspoken in the press and on social media on issues apart from football. Someone asked him Tuesday during the Eagles' organized team activities if it was difficult for Smith to separate Kaepernick's protest and the attendant coverage from the 49ers' failures last year. They were, after all, 2-14. Did Kaepernick contribute to that? Was he a . . . distraction?
"What is a distraction?" Smith said. "I think it's only a distraction when you all ask people about it. You know what I mean? You have to do your job. That's what you guys do. But I mean, it's understood. He talked to the team. First of all, he did it quiet. No one even knew he did it. Then he had to address it once everyone knew and the media was there. It got to the point with us where it was, 'OK, this is what he's going to do. It's going to be 90 seconds before every game or however long the anthem takes. This is what he's going to do, and then that's it.'
"It's not like you're in the huddle and he's calling the play, and you're like, 'This dude just took a knee.' You're trying to win a ball game. It wasn't a big deal at the end of the day."
This was the truest part of the entire Kaepernick story: that in the NFL, distraction is a word that can mean just about anything, which means it means just about nothing. In the NFL, Michael Vick, who went to jail for 18 months for running a dogfighting ring, was less of a distraction than Terrell Owens, who exercised in his driveway and split a team in two. The former didn't compromise his or his team's on-field fortunes the way the latter did. Usually, that's the standard that the men in the locker room apply: If your problem doesn't affect your play or work habits, it doesn't affect me.
That's also why Smith disagreed so strongly with the recent comments by New York Giants owner John Mara, who told Sports Illustrated that many of his team's fans would be angry if the Giants signed Kaepernick. This wasn't about football, about Kaepernick's ability to read a defense or throw an 18-yard comeback route. This was about ticket sales and marketing, about the willingness of teams to give second chances to players who had committed truly terrible acts and those teams' unwillingness to afford Kaepernick the same opportunity. If nothing else, at least Mara was being honest about his reasons.
"For me, I'll speak for what's right," Smith said. "People are accepting and willing to forgive people when they beat the hell out of women, sell drugs, do whatever, and commit all kinds of crimes, and you're able to forget that.
"You've seen me argue about criminal justice for a long time. I'm a firm believer in second chances. My family's had a lot of legal issues in the past. If you make a mistake, it doesn't mean you have to be that way forever. I believe in that. I believe in second chances. I believe in second chances for a guy like Joe Mixon, even though I'm an advocate against domestic violence. But I think you have to be open-minded to know that the guy didn't commit a crime.
"He didn't hurt anybody. He didn't do anything. It was a protest, and now people are kind of locking him out or don't want to support anybody that's associated with him when you're willing to support people who beat women and do all other kinds of crazy things. It doesn't make sense to me."
Did Smith think that Kaepernick was being blackballed?
"I think so, but I think there's different ways to look at 'blackballed,' " he said. "I mean, you can say a team doesn't want to bring him in because they think he may be a backup. I think he can play. At this time of the year, there's 96 quarterbacks plus on a team. You can't tell me there are 96 quarterbacks better than him. You look at it as that simple, and it doesn't make sense."
So what do Torrey Smith's answers say? They say that he's the kind of guy I'd want as a colleague or coworker, that he's willing to put his name to defending a friend and ex-teammate, and that I'd love the chance to talk in depth with him about politics and culture sometime. We'd probably disagree on some things. There's nothing wrong with any of that. Especially, nowadays, the talking part.