Page 3 of 4
At the peak of his career, Donovan McNabb, one of the most accomplished quarterbacks of his era, felt such an obligation to combat these stereotypes that he chose to run less often. "Everybody expects black quarterbacks to scramble," he said.
There is no better representation of race's complicated relationship with sports than the term "black quarterback." There are no "black pitchers" or "Mexican teachers" or "Chinese lawyers" or "Filipino accountants" — just pitchers, teaches, lawyers, accountants. The term exists because it describes both a quarterback's skin color and his style of play. Black quarterbacks, so the stereotype goes, are athletic, fleet-footed scramblers who can dart for the first down when there is nobody to throw to.
Kaepernick highlights the absurdity of these conceptions. He became a "runner" sort of by accident. In high school he was a skinny, fragile-looking kid, and rarely scrambled. When he did, his coaches would scream "Get out of bounds!" His only major college scholarship offer came from Nevada — other schools were scared off both by his unorthodox throwing motion and by the chance that he would decide to play professional baseball.
But Nevada's head coach Chris Ault, as it happened, was developing a new offensive scheme called the "Pistol," in which the quarterback takes the snap from a few feet behind the center, and the running back lines up a few feet behind the quarterback. It's an offense based on deception, where the quarterback has the choice to hand the ball to the running back, run it himself, or drop back to pass. Kaepernick turned out to be a perfect fit. He became the only quarterback in NCAA history to throw for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 in a collegiate career. As Harris told the Chronicle, "We'd see him run at Nevada and ask each other, 'Did we miss something?'"
When Jim Harbaugh named Kaepernick the 49ers' starter in November, he reconstructed the offense around the quarterback's running ability, including installing the Pistol formation. Kaepernick had spent his college career mastering the set's deceptive nuances. This was clear against the Packers. On many of those plays, when he took the snap, he eyed the defensive end. If the defensive end stepped out to tackle him, Kaepernick handed the ball to the running back and then accelerated toward the sideline, pretending he still had possession. If the defensive end lurched inside toward the running back, Kaepernick kept the ball. It was part chicken, part chess.
This sleight of hand extended past the playing field. Kaepernick was presenting to us what we expected to see: an athletic black quarterback running around defenses, showcasing his "physical gifts." But then it became something else.
As he baffled defenders, a familiar truth materialized. Kaepernick's success rested on the quarterback's intellect, his ability to decipher the complex defense meant to deceive him before making the final decision on where to send the football — all in a matter of seconds. Old conceptions of what it means for a quarterback to run the ball — that running somehow implied a lack of intelligence — were antiquated. Kaepernick revealed a false and silly dichotomy. Before he ever outran the defenders, he outsmarted them.
It was the realization of McNabb's dream. Whereas McNabb felt he had to stop running in order to escape stereotypes, Kaepernick's running shredded them. He shattered the notion of "black quarterback" while doing what "black quarterbacks" are expected to do.
Colin Kaepernick undermines long-held prejudices not by avoiding the components that generate the assumptions, but by embracing them. On Nov. 28, less than two weeks after Kaepernick made his first NFL start, a Sporting News columnist wrote that seeing a successful quarterback with tattoo sleeves covering his upper arms "must make the guys in San Quentin happy."
"NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility," David Whitley wrote. "He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don't want your CEO to look like he just got paroled."
That Sunday, after the 49ers beat the Miami Dolphins, a fan Tweeted a photo of Kaepernick kissing his bicep after a 50-yard touchdown run. Kaepernick (as @Kaepernick7) retweeted an image with a photoshopped headline: "Score a touchdown. Kiss your tattoo! #Kaepernicking." In the Tweet's message, he wrote "Love my tats, even if you don't."
An Internet meme was born. Across the globe, images of people kissing their biceps beside "#Kaepernicking" popped up. Kaepernick himself played along with the trend he created. After the Packers game, he posted a photo to his Instagram account showing him kissing his bicep. He wore a red shirt with a message: "Kaepernicking." Just as he toyed with the role of the quarterback, so too with the idea of celebrity, breaking through the fourth wall that detaches the spectators from the actors, teasing the notion of his own mythology.
It is a self-awareness that makes narrative-building uncomfortable. Sports are all about narratives, with characters, drama, and conflict. Boiled down, sports are the intersection of statistics and physics, but at the center of that intersection are the players. People at their rawest, most uninhibited state — in the fire of competition, tested and measured against an adversary. We see them laugh, shout with joy, fight, rage, panic, choke, cry. We form emotional bonds with them. We understand that we don't really know them, of course. All we have are bits, anecdotes and interviews, which we fit together and interpret into stories — Horatio Alger tales of upward mobility, perseverance through obstacles, young men achieving dreams.
Naturally, to fill the holes within the narratives, we use only what we have: assumptions and social conventions we've built up over the course of generations. We extrapolate from sign posts. Tattoos, race, playing style, the clothing an athlete wears in a post-game press conference, and so on. (All the details about Kaepernick in this story are bits.) Minuscule slices of an entire life, formed into a narrative arc that attempts to give meaning to a man most of us will never meet.