Another NFL Sunday is here, another day Colin Kaepernick watches it on TV. This week, the National Anthem protest issue, previously a subject of league unity after President Trump’s thoughtless fearmongering, spiraled into divisiveness by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s grenade-like comment that the NFL “can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Hooboy, Bob, you don’t wanna say that if your players are more than 70% minority.
At the heart of this remains Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback of mixed racial heritage, who first decided to protest the oppression faced by people of color by not standing for the National Anthem in 2016. That was also the year he opted out of his contract with the Niners, and he hasn’t touched a football in the NFL since.
On face value, this is hard to fathom. This is a quarterback who led his team to the Super Bowl, and at age 29 may have much left in the tank. As QBs like Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer, and Jay Cutler go down, some fans ask, “Why not Kap?” Fan sentiment has gotten so loud that Kaepernick filed a grievance that owners colluded to keep him out of the league.
Some fans. Others are clear: “Not Kap. Not Kap at all.” But how much of this is due to his Anthem protest and how much is due to his playing ability? I’ll dissect it from a game theory viewpoint by looking at an analogous model: the stag hunt. Because every now and then, game theory applies to games.
The stag hunt is a dilemma posed thusly: Two hunters track a large stag into the woods. They lay a trap which, if the stag springs it, will let them both eat. Days go by, and they get very hungry. Then the hunters see a hare hop across the trap. Each thinks, “If I snare that hare, I’ll eat, but the trap will be ruined.” The hare is of less value; the hunter who springs the trap will be the only one who eats. But if both stay put, then maybe — maybe — they’ll snag the stag, which can feed both of them. If it comes. If, if, if.
Let’s put aside the question of where the hunters’ AR-15s are and accept the dilemma as is. A hare in hand is worth more than a hypothetical deer to a hungry hunter. But the enmity of the other hunter he condemns is a problem. There is real social consequence here. So what should they do? It turns out the answer is that they should either both stay put or both go for the hare as fast as possible, with neither strategy being predominant. Or predictable.
I pointed out that the hare is of less value than the stag. That brings us back to Kaepernick, and how good a player he is. No one thinks he’s Aaron Rodgers. But one would presume he’s a better bet than the unknown Brett Hundley, who replaced Rodgers. One would presume he’s a better bet than perennial backup QBs Drew Stanton and Matt Moore, who replaced Palmer and Cutler. One would presume this — and one, it turns out, could be wrong.
Kap played in the 2012 Super Bowl and the NFC Championship Game the year after. That’s real good, and it got him a six-year, $126 million contract. After that? Um, not $126 million worth of good, that’s for sure. Two fines, two departed head coaches, three seasons of 8–8, 2–6, and 1–10 in his starts. He lost his starting job to Blaine Gabbert — not good — and never regained it. At 32–32, Kaepernick wasn’t great for a while, though he was stellar before.
The quarterback position is hard. To play it, you have to learn a system, and every head coach has his own system. Hundley, Stanton, and Moore know their coaches’ systems. The coaches might be forgiven for trusting the men in whom they’ve invested time. Kaepernick is an outsider they’d need to teach from scratch in the middle of a season. The hare might have value, say the hunters, but we can get by on this stale trail mix for at least a little while.
That doesn’t let the teams off the hook in the last offseason. There’s plenty of time to teach a gifted quarterback like Kaepernick a new system, and he very well might prosper in it. It at least is a better bet than hoping Blaine Gabbert turns out to be great. Yet no one took the bet on Kaepernick. No one at all.
This leads us back to the stag. In this case, it seems to be the National Anthem. McNair’s “inmates” comment came right after fellow Trump supporter and Washington Team-That-Cannot-Be-Named owner Dan Snyder claimed that “96 percent of Americans are for guys standing.” Like on everything else, Snyder’s wrong here. 43 percent of Americans say the protesters are doing the right thing — and importantly, some 82 percent of African Americans do.
The 49 percent of Americans who oppose the protests are quite vocal, though. The league’s revenue is tied to mollifying those people, and so Commissioner Roger Goodell has said “we want our players to stand” for the Anthem. But the league has stopped short of mandating it, despite Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s incendiary statements. The NFL wants to appear 100% behind the flag; while it knows players have rights to speak out, it would prefer they not exercise them during the Anthem. Sponsors have stood on the sidelines, mostly supporting free speech. The players show up to work. So far the fans are still there. The money flows. It’s a very careful equilibrium.
And it all collapses if they let Kaepernick back in. At least we have to presume the NFL thinks so. The fans who’ve threatened to boycott are apt to do so if the most vocal Anthem-protester is under center on Sundays. Fox News would erupt. The Commenter-in-Chief would go crazy on Twitter. So no job for Kap.
This is a horrible place for a player to be in — and the fact that I just spent a thousand words comparing Kaepernick to an animal can’t have helped much. He’s just a guy who wants to play ball while his legs and arms allow. Playing in the NFL isn’t a right, but it’s a privilege conferred to people who’ve done a lot more wrong than he has. It’s impossible to take Jerry Jones seriously on the subject of morality when he’s the one who signed Greg Hardy, for example. Yet all 32 teams have found reasons they’re better off without Kap in uniform.
The quarterback thinks that’s collusion. So do his fans. But the problem for Kap is that it’s not necessarily collusion, at least of the malicious kind. It could just be 32 hunters who gamble that if one team seizes the hare, all the hunters lose out on the stag. For now, they’re all waiting in the bushes. For now.
But they might miss the big picture: that Kaepernick might not be the hare in this example; he might instead be the stag. If one team signs him, it’s like waiting for the stag to come back through the trap. Two things can occur: the hunters’ trap works or it doesn’t. Either way, they know. Kap could be great again, or competent, or a bust. Either way, we’ll know. While signing Kap doesn’t erase racial oppression, it at least moves the debate to something else. Folks forgot what it was like when Tim Tebow — a controversial player who knelt for a different reason — couldn’t advance his career based on talent. Folks’ll forget it if Kaepernick can’t. They won’t if he never gets the chance.
This is the eighth of a series of posts on politics and game theory. Earlier posts covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, and the deficit. These essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.