Love him or loathe him, Colin Kaepernick is arguably the most polarizing player in the National Football League – and potentially all of professional sports. At the time of publication, the headline-making quarterback is still a free agent.

Let’s rewind before getting into the debate itself and look back at the events that lead us to this situation. Just under a year ago, on August 26th, Colin Kaepernick was shown to be sitting during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before the San Francisco 49ers third preseason game.

He went on to tell NFL Media that he sat because of the treatment of minorities, stating, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick

The 49ers, in turn, said that Kaepernick had a right to express himself in such a manner, stating, “In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.” Keeping in line with that statement, then head coach Chip Kelly said Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the National Anthem is “his right as a citizen” and said “it’s not my right to tell him not to do something.”

The NFL also released a statement, obtained by NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport: “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.”

Following the decision to sit during the National Anthem, Kaepernick received massive backlash for his actions. From players to other athletes to Donald Trump, Kaepernick was lambasted. Others, such as Seattle Seahawks safety Richard Sherman and former 49ers head coach, Jim Harbaugh, supported his message but contended that he could have chosen a better platform for the message.

Nate Boyer – a former Green Beret who found his way onto the Seattle Seahawks preseason roster – took the opportunity to engage in a open dialogue with the quarterback and hear him out.  In fact, Kaepernick invited Boyer to discuss the situation with him after Boyer penned an open letter to the quarterback where he conceded that it was Kaepernick’s right to exercise his constitutional right, but also wanted to better understand his reasons why.

Colin Kaepernick and Nate Boyer

The 90-minute conversation concluded with Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid deciding to “take a knee as the classic symbol of respect” Boyer added, “I told him, ‘It’s a good step, and it shows progress on your part and sensitivity and that you care about other people and how this affects them, their reaction.” Both sides made their points and listened to one another, coming to a mutually respectful conclusion. At San Francisco’s final preseason game, Nate Boyer stood beside a kneeling Colin Kaepernick.

As Kaepernick continued to kneel, other athletes joined him such as Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, and even Megan Rapinoe of the Seattle Reign and U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. All three and more sided with Kaepernick in his stance against social injustice. Others raised fists in lieu of sitting to demonstrate themes of solidarity with his message. Many other athletes across a variety of sports joined in as well.

Despite the initial backlash that clouded Kaepernick, his decision to kneel – and more importantly, his overall message – was also widely supported. He was even featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in the same month.

He would go on to kneel throughout the 2016 season, where he completed just under 60% of his passes for 16 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions, but went 1-10 as a starter on a poor San Francisco team. Despite not being initially named starter – in favor of Blaine Gabbert, to whom he lost his job the previous season – Kaepernick was named so in week 6 after Gabbert went 1-4 as the team’s starter.

At the season’s end, Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his contract, leaving a nearly $15 million salary – and over $2 million in bonuses – on the table, and making him a free agent for the first time in his career.

Since then, he remains unsigned as preseason football creeps closer every day. Teams such as the Baltimore Ravens have expressed interest – among others – but as of now, Colin Kaepernick is still a free agent, despite over 20 quarterbacks having been signed in free agency.

So why hasn’t Colin Kaepernick been signed by an NFL team? And should he be signed for that matter? The answer may not be so clear.

Kaepernick is 28-30 as a starter, he has thrown for 72 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, and led the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII in 2013 where they – ironically – lost to the Baltimore Ravens. A dual-threat quarterback, Kaepernick has also rushed for 2,300 yards and 13 touchdowns in his six-year NFL career – including a 90 yard run in 2014 against the San Diego Chargers.

Situationally, whether in his own half or the other side of the field, his completion percentage stays between 58% and 61%. However, his numbers dip noticeably in pass attempts over 10 yards. Don’t get me wrong, Kaepernick is never going to rival Drew Brees or the Manning Brothers, but he has proven himself to be an NFL quarterback. Quarterbacks only average 4.44 years, yet Kaepernick is still here with consistent numbers – neither overly impressive nor underwhelming, but consistent, an important distinction.

Richard Sherman, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and filmmaker Spike Lee have all called out teams for not signing the Nevada alumnus – with Sherman going so far as to say Kaepernick is being “blackballed” from the league.

Sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards said Kaepernick should “be a model, not a martyr.”

However clear the case may be for why he should be signed, the fact remains that Kaepernick is still a free agent. So why is this the case?

Kaepernick has made it known that he wants to go where he can compete for a starting spot and a salary of $9-10 million. Keeping that in mind, we can rule out a handful of teams that have established starters. The reality is that those salary demands are likely on the high end of the scale, especially for a signing that is not a starter. E.J. Manuel, a quarterback of a similar ilk, signed for the Raiders earlier this year and much was made of it regarding Kaepernick. What isn’t said is that Manuel signed for $800,000 with no guaranteed money – a far shot from what Kaepernick wants.

Moreover, he needs a certain system around him to succeed (i.e. the 2011-2014 Jim Harbaugh 49ers). Now, this is not a knock on him; many established starters need a particular system as well, just look at 2015 MVP Cam Newton in Carolina. When a team signs a quarterback, it is not an indictment that he is better than every other free agent, but rather he is a better fit for the team. It is just the nature of the game, but unfortunately for free agents like Kaepernick who function best in play-action systems featuring designed runs, those systems are going the way of the dodo.

Quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III have all learned that the running quarterback is on the way out. Wilson became a more refined pocket passer, with a career high is pass attempts and passing yards, while having a career low in rushing attempts and rushing yards last season. Cam Newton has come crashing back down to Earth after recording a 6-8 record after going 15-1 two seasons ago with his numbers dropping drastically. Robert Griffin III has stuck to his bread and butter – his speed – much to his (body’s) detriment as his passing is suspect and he suffers one injury after another. Griffin is also currently a free agent.

Forbes’ Brian Goff notes, “the future of offenses featuring planned running by the QB now looks less bright. Mobility is seen as a virtue… but the run-first or planned-run QB idea has stalled.”

Offenses do not tailor to backup quarterbacks; backups are generally signed to fit the offense already in place. With that said, he is not being blackballed; there is no league-wide conspiracy by every team to keep him out of the league.

Colin Kaepernick next to Nate Boyer (right)

Though it would be naïve to contend that every single owner and team supports his decision, to simply talk about football alone here is shortsighted because this situation transcends the game. Clearly there is more at play here than just passes, rushes and touchdowns.

ESPN First Take co-host Max Kellerman said, “You do not have to stand for the national anthem, and even if it was a rule that you did, is that Colin Kaepernick injecting politics into the NFL? No, that’s the NFL injecting politics.”

His co-host, the oft-outspoken Stephen A. Smith was more objective, saying in the same segment, “Let’s be real about something here. There is such a thing as consequences… It appears that Colin Kaepernick did not know that.”

“If you’re Colin Kaepernick, what we have to point out is even though his intent may have been honorable because he wanted to bring attention to racial injustices and beyond taking place in this country the fact of the matter is it appears as if he had no plan,” Smith added. “And when you have no plan, there’s nothing to execute.”

Smith, a supporter of Kaepernick bemoans his lack of direction. One such decision – his praise of certain policies held by Fidel Castro – may cost him a job in Miami, who just had starter Ryan Tannehill fall to injury and may be ruled out for the entirety of the 2017 season. Let’s remember Miami’s relationship with Cuba, and Castro in particular; if there’s one fanbase that will particularly have a strong disdain for Kaepernick, it would be Miami.

Colin Kaepernick has also been called a “distraction” by many, but this is misleading from the outset. The distraction is not Kaepernick himself, he has even said he will stand during the playing of the National Anthem this season. Rather, the distraction is the media ‘frenzy’ – even the term frenzy may not be enough – that surrounds the quarterback.

Colin Kaepernick stands for the National Anthem earlier in his career

The situation has been likened to that of former NFL quarterback (and current minor league baseball player) Tim Tebow.

Tebow, certainly a pious man with noble intentions, was given similar treatment – with an asterisk. There was Tebowmania, the physical act of “Tebowing,” and then that incredible win over the Steelers in overtime during the 2011 AFC Wild Card playoffs.

That offseason, the Broncos did what any team would do given the chance and signed one Peyton Manning. Tebow was traded to the New York Jets and after an abysmal season, he was headed for free agency. Aside from some tryouts, Tebow did not fair well, ultimately exiting the league and then beginning his pursuit of professional baseball.

Like Tebow, there is a heavy – very heavy – media presence and particularly a degree of scrutiny that many other players don’t endure. The asterisk mentioned above is that Kaepernick’s numbers are notably better than Tebow’s but the conclusion is the same.

The Baltimore Ravens expressed interest recently and have come under fire for their decision not to sign Kaepernick (as of now). More recently, Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab (a nationally syndicated radio host), likened Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Ravens legend Ray Lewis to a slave owner and slave. This comes after Lewis – a certain Hall of Famer who endured much controversy throughout his own career – advised the free agent to keep his activism private and “get back on the football field and let [his] play speak for itself.”

Keeping that last situation in mind, the Ravens simply expressed interest in Kaepernick – and for a second/third string role. The backlash over not signing a quarterback they were simply interested in is unprecedented. It is worth mentioning that the National Anthem he sat during was written in the very same city that chose not to sign him.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Jason Whitlock says, “the 29-year-old has struggled to find work because his supporters inflated the risk of signing him, and his skills don’t compensate for the uncertainty he brings. An owner, general manager or coach runs the risk of being publicly vilified as racist depending on how his team uses the mixed-race quarterback.”

Kaepernick has the quality to play in the NFL, but he is neither a Pro Bowler nor Canton-bound. Why would a team risk being vilified as the Ravens have – and they did not even sign him – if the Kaepernick signing goes awry? Signing a free agent like Blaine Gabbert, Cooper Rush or Austin Howard provides a much lower risk and a much higher potential return on investment as a result.

At the end of the day, the NFL is a business – an entertainment business. The league champions the military and Kaepernick disrespected the flag by the view of many. Kaepernick vilified himself in the eyes of a large demographic of fans.

The league has overlooked the past sins of many due to their on field performance. Michael Vick, Adrian Peterson, and (ironically) Ray Lewis – to name a few – all continued their star-studded careers amidst crimes, allegations, scandals, and more because of their scintillating performances that raked in bundles of cash by the truckload for the NFL.

As Dan Graziano of ESPN notes, “Kaepernick has committed the dual sin of (A) creating the dreaded ‘distraction’ while (B) not playing well enough for teams to overlook it. You fall into one of those boxes, and you run the risk of the NFL being done with you. Fall into both of them? That’s a bumpy road back.”

“And the engine of NFL commerce grinds too ruthlessly and relentlessly to keep anybody up at nights worrying about the inhumanity of that concept.”

This is the same league that attempted to discredit Dr. Bennet Omalu’s work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in NFL players. The NFL’s metaphoric ears perked up immediately sensing the damage this could do to the league – and its finances.

Jason Whitlock aptly sums it up, “Above all, talent drives NFL decisions.”

Alas, it seems that Colin Kaepernick’s ship has sailed into a perfect storm of circumstances – some of his own making, some beyond his control – that have left him in the situation he is now in.

The case against signing him seems to be prevailing, given that he is a free agent, but that may very well change in the near future.

Whatever outcome lay ahead, the events surrounding Colin Kaepernick certainly are noteworthy and the events that unfold are worth paying attention to. Only time will tell what happens, but it is unlikely that we have seen or heard the last of Colin Kaepernick – whether on the field in the National Football League or off of it.

Colin Kaepernick (Gerry Melendez for ESPN)

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