Colin Kaepernick, the former star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who has dedicated himself to social justice activism since his departure from the NFL in 2017, will return to the league virtually: He is the latest addition to Madden NFL 21’s roster, publisher Electronic Arts announced Tuesday on Twitter.
EA opened its statement by calling Kaepernick “one of the top free agents in football and a starting-caliber quarterback,” a description that directly strikes at the heart of the key question surrounding the athlete: Why has no NFL team dared to sign Kaepernick since he began protesting against police brutality and racial injustice during the 2016 season?
“Knowing that our EA SPORTS experiences are platforms for players to create, we want to make Madden NFL a place that reflects Colin’s position and talent, rates him as a starting QB, and empowers our fans to express their hopes for the future of football,” said EA. “We’ve worked with Colin to make this possible, and we’re excited to bring it to all of you today.”
As of Tuesday, Madden NFL 21 players can play with Kaepernick in exhibition games and add him to any NFL team in the game’s Franchise mode.
Kaepernick, 32, was selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, and played six seasons for the team, leading them to a Super Bowl appearance in his second year. In August 2016, ahead of a preseason game, Kaepernick remained sitting during the national anthem; he explained later that he did so as a protest, saying that the American flag represents “a country that oppresses Black people and people of color” and that the issue of racial justice was “bigger than football.” Kaepernick later changed the form of his protest, deciding to kneel on the field as a way to show more respect for military service members. He knelt during the anthem prior to every game in the 2016 season, during which he played 12 games.
Colin Kaepernick’s journey from football stardom to NFL exile
Madden’s current announcing team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin debuted in Madden NFL 17, which was released in 2016. Fans originally expected that the duo would discuss Kaepernick’s protests, as part of their ability to record lines during the season to reflect the current events of the league. But Madden developer EA Tiburon quickly walked back plans to discuss the controversy. Two years later, EA apologized for censoring Kaepernick’s name out of a song on the Madden NFL 19 soundtrack, saying it was an “unfortunate mistake.” (This is what EA most likely meant when it used the phrase “past soundtrack mistakes” in its statement Tuesday.)
Following the 2016 season, Kaepernick chose to opt out of his contract and become a free agent in March 2017, having been told by the 49ers that they planned to release him. In October 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance with the NFL, alleging that the league and its owners had colluded to blackball him. The parties reached a settlement in 2019. More than 18 months later, Kaepernick remains unsigned.
In early June, shortly after the police killing of George Floyd sparked worldwide Black Lives Matter protests — demonstrations that sought to raise awareness of the same kinds of societal issues that Kaepernick had called attention to in his own protests — a group of NFL athletes released a video in which they called on the league to publicly “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting.”
How to support Black Lives Matter and the protests against police brutality
One day later, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell posted a video statement of his own, saying, “We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” Goodell said later in June that he would “welcome” the signing of Kaepernick by an NFL team, saying, “[I] support a club making that decision and encourage them to do that.” And in an appearance on Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, a YouTube series hosted by Fox Sports analyst and former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho, Goodell addressed Kaepernick’s protests directly, saying, “I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to.” The video was released Aug. 23 — the same day that Kenosha, Wisconsin resident Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times at close range by police officers.
In Madden NFL 21, Kaepernick appears with an 81 overall rating — good enough to be ranked above more than a dozen current starting quarterbacks in the NFL, such as Ryan Tannehill of the Tennessee Titans and Mitchell Trubisky of the Chicago Bears. Players can see his ratings in the Player Management section, and he is editable like any other player in the game.
The first time you boot up Madden NFL 21, you’ll be greeted with a number of splash screens, including two messages from EA. One is about the company’s Positive Play initiative, which expresses a commitment to “combat discrimination and promote healthier behavior, by creating positive interactions, positive experiences and positive environments for all.” In the other, a black screen with white text, EA says, “We stand in solidarity with the Black community. Let’s all drive change together as we work to end racial injustice in our world.”
EA’s decision to bring Kaepernick into Madden NFL 21’s free agent pool is a bold statement in support of the athlete himself, his efforts to make it back to the NFL, and his social activism. And it’s an important instance of the company backing up its words with some specific action.
Over the summer, at least one NFL team expressed interest in potentially signing Kaepernick. Moreover, amid a summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, public opinion regarding Kaepernick’s original sideline protests has shifted in his favor. But even if he never plays another snap in the league, Kaepernick has already made a far greater impact through his activism, including personal donations of more than $1 million.
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