USC

Colin Kaepernick’s Netflix special sparks conversations about racial injustice in the NFL

In “Colin in Black and White” Kaepernick compares the NFL combine to slavery

Colin Kaepernick, co-creator of the Netflix dramatic limited series "Colin in Black and White," poses at the premiere of the series, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

In Colin Kaepernick’s new Netflix drama turned docuseries, “Colin in Black and White,” the former San Francisco 49er’s quarterback invites viewers into his life, guiding them through his experiences with racial injustice from being a young football player to an NFL star. Since its release on Friday, the series has been met with mixed emotions from fans and NFL employees alike, particularly because of his comparisons of the NFL combine to slavery.

In the opening scene, Kaepernick made headlines for illustrating the NFL combine as a slavery auction with players in shackles as they are being sold to potential owners. The combine is a week-long event in which athletes are required to undergo various physical and mental tests before being potentially drafted onto a team.

“Before they put you on the field, teams poke, prod, and examine you... No boundary respected. No dignity left intact,” he said as players behind him are inspected on a football field.

Kaepernick furthered his statements on the combine by arguing that while scouts claim that they are searching for “warriors, killers, and beasts” on the field, they are in fact creating a power imbalance between the athletes and the higher-ups.

According to an article by sportskeeda, roughly 70% of all NFL players are Black. The racial makeup of the coaches in charge of these black athletes is just the opposite, with approximately 70% of NFL coaches being white according to nj.com.

Kaepernick has had an extensive history of activism in the NFL, beginning in 2016 when he protested against police brutality by taking a knee during the National Anthem. His actions provoked a nation-wide movement, inspiring other NFL players to follow in his footsteps, but it came at a cost.

The now retired football player opted out of his contract with the 49er’s in 2017 following claims that the team had plans to release him. Since then, he has been a free-agent but has yet to be signed to a team, with many speculating that he has been blacklisted as a result of his protests.

Miki Turner, award-winning journalist and USC professor further backed this claim and asserted that black players have been discriminated against by the NFL and in the past have been underpaid compared to their white teammates.

“This is a league that pretty much makes its money on the back of Black players. And this is a league that doesn’t apparently want to take care of them,” she said.

Turner said that systemic racism is especially prevalent in the CTE lawsuit, which was recently settled in October.

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a brain condition that is believed to be caused by repeated trauma to the head and has been associated in various instances amongst football players. Those with CTE have experienced memory loss (such as dementia), mood swings, and difficulty in thinking.

In the lawsuit, former athletes accused the NFL of “race-norming” in dementia studies, resulting in many of them not being eligible for a settlement. In other words, the NFL pushed the assumption that Black athletes have a record of lower cognitive functions overall and could not be blamed for any memory loss that may arise amongst the players.

In regards to the portrayal of combine process in the docuseries, Turner states while Kaepernick’s feelings in regards to the NFL drafting system are valid, she is unsure of the direct comparison of the combines to slavery.

“I understand where he’s coming from, but realistically speaking, I think that regardless of your skin color in the NFL, that draft process is like being at a meat market,” Turner said. “Now that said, there’s certainly been some level of discrimination against Black players in the NFL, so I think Colin at this point is using his platform to try to challenge the way people think, which is a good thing, but I think he has to be careful putting this kind of rhetoric out there.”

While Professor Turner believes that there are areas in which the NFL has improved on in regards to mitigating racial injustice in the sport, she believes it could be troubling to place the horrors of slavery and football drafts within the same category.