In an amazing bit of hubris, the NFL produced a video that uses — and lingers on — the image of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling. And the last game of the season’s first Sunday offered the most jarring moment of NFL hypocrisy when the return of Aldon Smith — Kaepernick’s draft...
KeithBirmingham / Associated Press
The strange and hypocritical tightrope the NFL is attempting to walk was on full display in Week 1.
The league is trying to satisfy a workforce that has very real concerns about its employer’s stance and purpose, placate the masses, appear woke, do the bidding of its conservative owners, stay in tune with the times, wrap itself in the flag, be only about football, represent its diverse fan base. It seems impossible and often highly disingenuous.
As the Miami Dolphins said in an eye-opening video that the team put out to explain why they have decided to stay in their locker room during pregame pageantry, including the national anthem: “We don’t need a publicity parade … no more fluff and empty gestures.”
Oh, but we got them. Plenty of NFL fluff and slogans and gestures.
Before every game, inside the stadium and on most broadcasts, the NFL is running a slickly produced video of Alicia Keys performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
In an amazing bit of hubris, the NFL’s video uses — and lingers on — the image of Colin Kaepernick kneeling.
Kaepernick described it on Twitter as the NFL’s “propaganda about how they care about Black Life.”
There was no more jarring moment of NFL hypocrisy in the first weekend than the return of Kaepernick’s draft classmate Aldon Smith.
The former 49ers pass rusher, Smith was on the field for Dallas. It was the first time he had played a football game since 2015, when he played an abbreviated season for the Raiders before being tossed out of the league.
Oh, my gosh! Smith made tackles! He had a sack! It was all so amazing that announcer Cris Collinsworth could not stop gushing over Smith’s return, without bothering to mention why Smith was out of the league and all the ways he derailed his own career. Absolutely none of which had to do with speaking up for what he believed in.
For those who need a refresher on Smith, he:
• Had a DUI five days after his rookie season ended;
• Shot illegal handguns at a house party where a man was wounded;
• Was arrested for a DUI early on a Friday morning but was bailed out in time for 49ers practice and was allowed to play the next Sunday before entering rehab;
• Was arrested for making a false bomb threat at LAX;
• Was suspended by the NFL;
• Was arrested on hit-and-run and DUI charges during 2015 training camp;
• Was released by the 49ers;
• Was detained by San Francisco Police for public intoxication after the car he was a passenger in ran into a police vehicle;
• Was booked in San Francisco on domestic violence charges;
• Was released by the Raiders and hadn’t played in almost five years.
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Smith’s performance on Sunday night proved that you can be out of the league and still be effective, though we keep hearing in Kaepernick’s case that is impossible. Was Smith once young and stupid? Yes. But he made the same mistakes over and over, mistakes that could have killed people. Kaepernick gets no such forgiveness for the youthful missteps he made — ones that didn’t endanger anyone — while he was trying to figure out his message and his voice.
Kaepernick can’t get a job, yet his image is being exploited by the league that rejects him. Eric Reid, who played well for Carolina for the past two seasons, is also unemployed, and his image is also being shamelessly used. That was the focus of Kaepernick’s angry post.
Meanwhile, the NFL is perfecting pandering and lip service. It stencils “End Racism” in its end zones, yet when teams band together in Kansas City for a moment of unity — something pretty much any human on Earth should support — they are booed loudly by fans. Fans who then immediately launch into a “tomahawk chop” chant that Native Americans have made clear is offensive.
This summer, Patrick Mahomes — the new face of the NFL — took a career risk by participating in a video put together by players that demanded the NFL be proactive after the George Floyd murder. Mahomes looked in the camera and was the first player in the video to say, “Black Lives Matter.” But when he linked arms with the opposition, a lot of folks in No. 15 jerseys booed him.
Six teams prior to Monday’s two games stayed in their locker rooms while both “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. A possible silver lining to this moment, when no fans are in the stands and the social justice movement is raising questions about knee-jerk pageantry, would be that the national anthem might no longer be played before professional sports games. Maybe corporate leagues won’t wrap themselves in the flag and the military — inherently political gestures — while castigating their players’ personal choices of expression.
The NFL is big on gestures. The players have asked for more from it.
As the Dolphins said in their video, “Where are the funds that were promised?”
Maybe they went to the stencils for the field. And that slick video that exploits Colin Kaepernick’s image.
Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @annkillion