Comparing NFL draft to slavery: Is Colin Kaepernick right?

Ser Baffo / Netflix

Fact Box

  • Colin Kaepernick played six seasons as the quarterback for San Francisco’s 49ers in the NFL and is a political activist endorsed by Nike. In August 2016, he kneeled for the national anthem in protest against perceived US police brutality and race inequality.
  • The National Football League (NFL) is a US professional football organization that was established in 1920 in Canton, Ohio. It started with teams from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, New York, and Michigan, but expanded since then to six new franchises.
  • In Kaepernick’s new Netflix series, “Colin in Black & White,” he likens the professional football draft to “modern-day slavery,” saying, “Before they put you on the field, teams poke, prod and examine you searching for any defect that might affect your performance.” 
  • In response, former NFL player Rep. Burgess Owens tweeted, “How dare @Kaepernick17 compare the evil endured by so many of our ancestors to a bunch of millionaires who CHOSE to play game.”
  • Before slave auctions, slaves would be washed, covered in tar or grease to give the appearance of health, and “poked, prodded and forced to open their mouths for the buyers.”

Curtice (No)

In his new Netflix six-part series Colin Kaepernick compares the process of the NFL's draft to the slave trade. It is foolish and offensive to make such a ridiculous claim. His argument cheapens and trivializes the immoral institution of slavery that existed everywhere in the world up to it entering the New World colonies.

First, a few basics: Unlike slavery, no potential NFL draftee is forced to show up at the league's draft combine. Those who are there willingly choose to attend. Slaves had no such choice. Next, unlike most jobs in the United States, physical skill and ability are what potential NFL draftees are offering NFL teams. The draft combine provides them an opportunity to showcase that skill and ability to 32 possible employers.

It is nothing remotely like slavery for team coaches and executives to want to know as much about a player prior to drafting them and offering them a multi-million dollar contract. Each team invests millions of dollars in player salaries each year. Any employer would want to have a high level of confidence in those they have offered such a large contract. Perhaps it is noteworthy that San Francisco's 49ers did not get their money's worth out of Kaepernick as he steadily declined, ranking bottom of the league.

Slaves in the United States and elsewhere had no option to choose their occupation, hire agents, enter into contracts, potentially earn millions in their chosen field, plus earn millions more from endorsement deals. Kaepernick is and has been free to promote himself and earn millions in the process. But, to do so while trivializing actual slavery is disingenuous and is what has earned him the title of 'shameless con artist.'

Jimmy (Yes) 

Colin Kaepernick's comparison of the NFL draft to slavery is but one in a long line of negative responses to the league's draft process. Though commonly referred to as a cattle call, Kaepernick's claims are more pointed—especially coming from the instigator of one of the era's most recognizable racial protests—and they're apt.

While the process of assessing prospective players can be compared to slave auctioning, Kaepernick is not calling the NFL slavery. He is using the comparison to point towards discrepancies in the 'power dynamics' of the league. Of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2020 draft, 29 were Black. Alternatively, the league's 32 teams have no Black owners and only three Black head coaches. The dynamic between management and players becomes problematic when easily delineated by race. 

Former player Michael Bennet didn't mince words when likening team owners to slave owners. When considering a rookie's lack of autonomy, the analogy is condemning. Young players have no choice over where they work and no choice but to sign contracts with no guaranteed money. These limits are in place during their fastest and healthiest years – minimalizing their prime earning potential

The loudest voices opposing Kaepernick are White men. Their fragility makes them unwilling to have conversations regarding race in athletics. Consequently, this silences Black voices instead of considering them. Just because athletes choose to play professionally does not mean they should be subjugated and treated like property. To argue otherwise argues against the humanity of workers and minorities.

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