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Colin Kaepernick: A Blend Between Role Model And Scapegoat

Evan Budrovich |
July 13, 2013 | 11:30 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Players like Kaepernick can't hide off the field anymore. (Kaep49ers/Wikimedia Commons)
Players like Kaepernick can't hide off the field anymore. (Kaep49ers/Wikimedia Commons)

In just the past week, we have witnessed a fair share of polarizing issues involve every aspect of the world of sports, some that seem just too petty to be plastered all over SportsCenter.

Fans have been trained over the years to ignore question marks on a player's record if the production merits celebration and admiration. But over the past week, a new perspective has entered the scene, one that stems from public perception of the product we constantly consume on a daily basis.

Now that fans have been exposed to the lives of their favorite players at a whole new level, at what point is a line drawn? How far can an athlete go before supporters will turn on him or her? And to that extent, should players be held to a higher standard in regards to their public life?

This may sound like an intense physiological and social discussion left for an intense research term paper, but what better a time to discuss brand than now, when rumors and gossip spread like wild fire in today’s modern media.

The Ultimate Test Subject

First and foremost, the manner in which Colin Kaepernick received criticism about his choice to wear a Miami Dolphins cap has sparked quite the discussion over the role of franchise players on and off the field.

Is a player held at a higher standard as the franchise quarterback? Does that truly mean they have to bleed their team colors to the grave, or can we give players a pass for representing their individual tastes in “free time”?

This distinct instance was not the first time athletes have been criticized for wearing swag that causes controversy. For example, LeBron James caused uproar in Cleveland in 2007 by wearing a New York Yankees cap while attending a Cleveland Indians game.

We even had a case last season, where Dodgers fans were sitting in the front row of a road game in Arizona before they were asked to wear Diamondbacks gear to represent the home squad on national television. The obsession of fans and the image their players, teams and markets have in the world is overwhelming.

This all relates back to Kaepernick because his rise to fame has been as quick as any superstar. He's a player we thought would be a one-hit wonder, with nothing more than faith-based tattoos and a monstrous touchdown celebration.

This from a man who continues to stir controversy over the way he looks, the way he plays the game, and the manner in which he appears to others. The Kaepernick family, which adopted and raised Colin, defends their son’s freedom to express himself, claiming his expression is part of his individual freedom and that he should not be forced to remove or cover his tattoos. 

And that leads to the next point surrounding the young phenom this week, a stunning array of shots in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue. For all the flack surrounding Kaepernick’s tattoos during the 49ers playoff run, the majority of sports fans took more opposition to 77-year-old Gary Player posing for photos in the yearly issue.

Which all begs the question, has the all-access route of sports journalism that fans love and admire, taken a step too far into personal players live?. Let’s take both sides of the argument and crack open a middle ground to the age debate of privacy versus notoriety.

The Rigors of Professional Athletics 

Despite flack that surrounds athletes and their fashion choices, we need to take a step back and understand from their perspective what life off the gridiron truly means. The pains of a loss may be detrimental for years to the die-hard fan, but to a player who gets paid to win games, the strife from a loss only fuels their efforts over the offseason or that next very week to train harder and prepare for battle over and over again.

Arguments have been made that athletes that fold under the brightest scrutiny don’t seem to care enough or are just missing that one ingredient for success. We even judge All-Stars and top-notch players by the number of championships they win, and downgrade losers for simply not being able to do the same. 

For those who come from those circles who feel that certain athletes don’t love their brand the way they should, keep in mind this quick blurb from Will Leitch of SportsonEarth.

“Athletes, during the offseason, spend the vast majority of their time training. There is nothing glamorous about training. It's nothing but sweat and grime and blood and pain and sacrifice, and they do it over and over and over, rep after rep. And you do this almost entirely alone. There is no glamour, there are no fans, there are no clubs. It is just them, putting in the hours, day after day."

Without these painstaking hours of effort and personal determination, the product on the field we all have come to love would be poor. To doubt the tenacity of a professional athlete would be foolish, given the mathematical improbability of even making it through high school, college and the stock of international talent.

Can He Truly Become The Face Of A Franchise?

After he led the team to their sixth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, the 49ers dealt Alex Smith for a second-round pick and promised Colin Kaepernick the keys to the kingdom moving forward.

The mystery man from Nevada can't go under the radar like he used to. (Kyle Nishioka/Wikimedia Commons).
The mystery man from Nevada can't go under the radar like he used to. (Kyle Nishioka/Wikimedia Commons).
Coming into last season, very few fans knew anything more about Kaepernick. His epic comeback over then second-ranked Boise State in 2010, robbing them of a trip to the National Championship in arguably Boise State’s greatest season, garnered some attention. But besides that collegiate victory, the Nevada prospect was relatively unhyped leaving college.

Questions surrounded the two-sport sensation about his transition to the NFL, though 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh saw a talented arm, an instinctual rusher for the ages, and leadership intangibles that he could tame into an elite NFL player.

Going back to his days in the NFL, Harbaugh never took to kindly towards anyone outside his inner-circle. “I don’t talk to anybody in a San Francisco 49ers shirt,” Harbaugh told NFL reporter Jim Trotter in 2000, when he was a quarterback for the San Diego Chargers. “How could you wear that out here? Seriously, man. How could you wear that out here to a Chargers facility?”

I only bring this up becuase the general who took a chance on Kaepernick is not the biggest fan of poor branding or misrepresenting your cause. It's a 24/7/365 attitude in his mind, something that certainly spills over to Harbaugh's current club.

Thus far, the risk has definitely been worth the investment. Coming in at No. 11 on Chris Mortensen's most recent QB rankings, the talented quarterback has given the 49ers confidence in his abilities to lead this team to a title, despite the 87-MPH heater he delivered to the plate for the first pitch of a San Francisco Giants game earlier this summer.

Players such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers rise to the top of the ranks amongst faces of the league. These are the elite amongst the bunch that allow their actions on and off the field are judged under the microscope, something they have acceptingly embraced.

Whether you have a major or no affiliation at all to one team or another, the actions you make with your body, clothes and attitude mean a great deal. And whether players like it or not, there is just something different about being the back-up long snapper or playing the role of quarterback.

Franchise guys receive a bulk of the criticism for a loss, and a majority of the credit for pulling out the victory. That type of pressure can translate not only to a pass or run., but judgment by fans whom watch your every move, whether at practice, a drug store, or the movies.

Bottom Line

Not everyone is involved in criminal activity, lewd acts or even troublesome behavior. But as long as you put up numbers, we're willing to accept those major flaws, at least for a while.

This may fall back more into the discussion surrounding Aaron Hernandez and his alleged criminal activity. Nevertheless, a common line exists for all professional athletes and their public lives. The realm of sports are exactly what we call them, an exhibition of physical brute strength and incredible determination.

When folks gets upset at a player like Colin Kaepernick for wearing Dolphins swag, it just begins to sound slightly overprotective, like a father watching over the shoulder of his daughter's every move at the high school prom. 

At the end of the day, it all comes back to the biggest point of professional sports. The institution of professional sports is not leaving anytime soon. Whether you want to get upset at one athlete, other players will continue to play and fans will be fans. Therefore, the system in place demands more from its athletes than ever before, not only on the field but off as role models and first class citizens.

The name on the back of the jersey can be taken away at any second, so players and fans must respect the sanctity of the game and the opportunities they are presented. We understand players' rights to have freedom and personal choice, and it is to be respected on certain matters.

But when Colin Kaepernick makes a public decision to formally apologize for his actions, he did what we all expected and have come to demand from players. The individual may don the number and name on his back, but the passion that surrounds the front of the jersey will supersede any personal decision, whether fair or foul.

Reach Staff Writer Evan Budrovich here or follow him on Twitter.



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