Colin Kaepernick controversy: Why both sides are wrong

The Sports Xchange
Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

Both sides have it wrong in the discussion over Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand for the national anthem.

The debate has devolved into a question of whether he is right to do that, or wrong to use his football fame in a social debate.


But the bigger issue, particularly for the 49ers, is why a lack of leadership in the organization allowed this to become an issue in the first place.

Football is the ultimate team game, and no matter what you think of a play, a player, a plan or a gesture, success in football requires everybody on a team sacrificing their individuality for the team's goals.

In the NFL, players rarely are allowed to do what they want if it impacts the team. Simple as that. And there is no question

Kaepernick's sit-down impacts the 49ers because it has become one of the biggest stories in the league, forcing teammates and others to answer questions about that instead of about a season that begins for them in little more than a week.

The 49ers, perhaps more than most teams, should be well aware of that, having lived through the Terrell Owens Epoch not that many years ago, when Owens' antics got him into hot water and angered coach Steve Mariucci, and Owens responded by saying, in essence, "I've got to do what I've got to do."


We know how that worked out.

Owens, of course, was a much better player than Kaepernick is right now, although never as great a player as Owens himself thought he was. Owens' antics were all about himself instead of a real cause.

Nonetheless, the point is the same, in a game so strongly focused on "team," players frequently have to subjugate their own thoughts and beliefs for the team's benefit.

Kaepernick scores on a 15-yard run against the Ravens during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Further, for whatever reason, Kaepernick's career has declined each year since the 49ers played in the Super Bowl following the 2012 season, and an organization in control of its team can't let him set the tone we're seeing now.

Whether you want to put the blame directly on Jed York, the team's CEO, or not, the key point is that everything stops at the boss' desk, and it's the boss' responsibility to know everything going on beneath him in the organization. If there's a problem, an issue, a disturbance, the boss is supposed to take care of it or assign someone to take care of it.


If, in fact, he assigned coach Chip Kelly, well, that was a blown assignment. Kelly said it was Kaepernick's right to do as he wanted but that's the wrong answer from a coach who should want players thinking only about football and about each other and not tilting at windmills.

The Kaepernick incident fits perfectly, however, into the narrative of what has happened to the 49ers in the little more than a decade and a half since Eddie DeBartolo relinquished control of the franchise to his sister and his nephew.

DeBartolo made it his point to know what the heck was going on in the locker room downstairs, even when he was at home in Youngstown, Ohio. He did not let issues fester, although he solved many of them by throwing money at the problem, which would be a problem in itself now in the salary cap era.

During the first player strike in 1982, for example, he got the late Bill Walsh, his coach, to keep the team unified by telling stars who did not want to go on strike that they had to stick with their teammates. Eventually, there were some ruffled feathers, nonetheless, but for the most part the 49ers were a unified team.


And a couple of years later, when defensive end Fred Dean, now in the Hall of Fame, held out for half the season, Walsh, who was also the general manager, told DeBartolo to get involved. DeBartolo recruited Willie Brown, at the time speaker of the California state assembly and later mayor of San Francisco, to work with Dean's agent to get a contract done.

Players in that era knew if they had a problem, they could take it to the owner, and his ability to listen and solve those problems was a major reason DeBartolo was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.

What's interesting about Kaepernick's beef is that he did not make it, or much of anything else, an issue until he had been sidelined by injury for a long time and his future with the team became in doubt. It leaves open the question of what his genuine beliefs are or if his actions this summer are a cry for attention now that he has become largely irrelevant as a player.

Nonetheless, the point is the same. Any coach in the NFL, or probably any league, will tell you the same thing, that he does not want "distractions." He doesn't want players asked about anything but the next game, and sometimes doesn't even want that. Well, then, it's up to the organization to make sure that's what he gets. The 49ers never should have allowed the Kaepernick situation to get to the point. But they did, and it's hard to see a good way out of this mess for them.


--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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