This is a column about Colin Kaepernick. Yes, I’m going to write about race and politics and all the rest of it. Don’t worry, though. I hear you hollering at me to “stick to sports”. I’ll stick to all the parts that make—and have always made—sports great, because here’s the thing: we’ve never just “stuck to sports”. Since the beginning, sports have always been about so much more. It’s why we’ve kept watching through all these years. There are only so many outcomes that can happen on the court or diamond or field. But we keep watching because of the boundless, random turns life takes off of it.

Every sport gives us something different, another reason to pull us in. College football is a great, never-ending coming of age story. The old cliché is that boys enter programs, and after four years of hard work and hard coaching, they leave as young men. We’re suckers for that storyline. And a lot of the time, those plot points we’re looking for end up being real. You saw it last weekend as Texas QB Sam Ehlinger went from looking like the panicked true freshman that he was in the first half against USC, to a poised veteran by the game’s final drives. Or you hear about it in anecdotes like this one from after Clemson beat Alabama in the National Championship last January. Nick Saban gathered his boys in the locker room after the heartbreak and delivered a short message: “Don’t waste this failure.” That’s straight out of Friday Night Lights.

Baseball is about tradition. Fathers and sons. Ghosts. Basketball’s about personality. If college football is a teen drama, then the NBA is a trashy reality show. There’s a reason basketball has become a 12-month sport. The court’s not nearly as big as the men playing on it. We obsess over feuds and chemistry as much as we talk about strategy. We turn half the guys into heroes, the other half into villains.

As for the NFL, let’s go to Hall of Fame running back LaDanian Tomlinson, who summed things up during his induction speech in Canton this summer: “Football is a microcosm of America. All races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing side by side. When you’re a part of a team, you understand your teammates. Their strengths and weaknesses and work together towards the same goal to win a championship.”

Of course, the football Tomlinson describes wasn’t always like it is today. Back in the early days, football teams were all white, from the Northeast, from Ivy League schools. In that context, too, Tomlinson’s thesis holds true. Football’s evolution is a microcosm of America as well. The country’s gone from a white society to a mixed one, from one mainly focused on the Northeast to one that reaches both coasts and, occasionally, internationally across the Atlantic and into London too.

And if football is a microcosm of the country, then perhaps there’s no better piece of evidence than the Colin Kaepernick saga, which has brought out the best and worst of present-day America.

(Gerry Melendez / ESPN)

The best would be Kaepernick himself. From the time he first started protesting last year he has been nothing but the gold standard for what you would like to see from a fellow American. Agree with him or not, he did his research, made educated decisions about his beliefs, and then stood by them. He’s donated over $1-million to charities supporting the initiatives he’s shed light on. He’s been willing to listen, to not be rigid in his beliefs but understand all sides. When former Texas Longhorn and Green Beret Nate Boyer wrote an op-ed about Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the National Anthem, Kaepernick invited him to talk, and after hearing Boyer out, the quarterback elected to kneel instead of sit. More than anything, though, he’s inspired others to take a more thoughtful look at the world—from the countless players he’s inspired to everyday guys on the street who have started to think a little bit about the issues facing the country. If every American acted like Colin Kaepernick, we’d be much better off.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and the reaction to his protest is nothing short of disgusting. Many critics are his opposite: rigid in their beliefs, uneducated, and frankly ill-intentioned. This is Trump’s America: cowards afraid of change and people who don’t think like them. To them, a quarterback should be a 6’4, square-jawed GI Joe doll. But one who has tattoos all up and down his arms? And an afro?This isn’t your grandpa’s NFL anymore.

It’s not supposed to be. It’s not your grandpa’s America anymore, either.

The hypocrisy coming from Kaepernick’s critics has been impressive, but not surprising. JJ Watt raised $37-million for Hurricane Harvey relief and is rightfully being lauded as a model for how public figures should act. But how is Watt’s hurricane fundraiser any different than Kaepernick’s own protest? At their core, they’re trying to accomplish the same goal: to raise awareness for issues affecting their communities—for Watt, that community just happens to be the city of Houston. For Kaepernick, it’s Black America.

(Troy Taormina / USA TODAY Sports)

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. Nobody’s going to argue about the necessity of helping Houston. Nobody’s not going to argue about the claim that black lives matter. People will call JJ Watt the patriot, Colin Kaepernick the traitor, but they’re both heroes. Both are standing up for something noble. Both are making a difference. That’s why LT’s right. Football is a microcosm of America today. We have different people who believe in different things. We disagree, and we fight. But we’re stuck together. We find a way to make it work. And onto the next play we always go.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But Kaepernick isn’t being allowed to play. The reasons are many, but here’s a plain truth: that Kaepernick is not on an NFL roster is pure lunacy from a football standpoint. You can make your own assumptions as to why, but perhaps in that way, too, football reflects our times: it’s two steps forward, one step back. And just when you think it can’t still be the case, you’re reminded: this country’s still run by old white men. We’re all worse off because of it.

So yes, let’s just stick to sports. The debates, the questions, the change it’s spurred. Nothing but sports—and all the extra weight that word carries, too.

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