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Opinion Kelly: Regarding Kaepernick’s unemployment: Oh, it's ‘a system thing,’ all right

As the NFL's interesting version of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers is expected to carry a heavy philosophical load.

All the questions that Brady shrugs off, smiles tightly through or walks away from, the Green Bay Packers quarterback is expected to answer.

Over the past year and a bit, people have tried to ask Brady about the Colin Kaepernick situation a hundred times in a hundred different ways.

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He always deflects with some version of, "Yes, I heard something about that and that is definitely a thing worth thinking about." Then he moves on to something more his speed, such as how he reads blitz coverages.

ESPN asked Rodgers about Kaepernick recently and he felt compelled to be more forthcoming.

"I think he should be on a roster right now," Rodgers said. "I think because of his protests, he's not."

It was an obvious connection to make, yet hearing someone inside the league's upper class make it felt revolutionary. Someone with some pull had finally said out loud what everyone knows.

Now that that's out of the way, they can all resume doing nothing about it.

The NFL regular season begins on Thursday. Kaepernick, his protests and his subsequent unemployment remain the most interesting storyline going in. It's the only thing in sport that seems in any way connected to reality. The rest of it is a soft wash of money, marketing and escapism.

Like the world we live in, the Kaepernick situation is more complicated than either side of the debate would like it to be.

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His supporters say he deserves a job. He does not.

Nobody deserves a job in the NFL. The only way to determine that is if you have a job.

There will always be a spot for the most elite talents at top positions. For those players, deportment and perception is irrelevant.

A top-five-in-the-league rush end could stab someone in the streets and at least one team will find a reason to put him on the roster.

It's a risk-reward calculation – is the trouble of inviting this stabber into your home, where he might stab someone else, worth the 12.5 sacks he's averaged over the past four seasons? It almost always is.

The regulars in non-key positions are allowed some limited latitude. You can have a personality. Just let it be one of three types – the fun guy, the stoic guy or the vicious guy. Don't be the weird guy.

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Then there are the supplementary players – the fifth receivers, the backups, the depth. They are interchangeable chum. The NCAA is producing them at the rate of hundreds each year. Their life expectancy at the professional level may be measured in months.

They are expected to be featureless human cogs that fold seamlessly into the organization's hive mind. No stabbing or growing a public personality for them.

Five years ago, Kaepernick was part of the first group. By two years ago, he'd dropped to the second. Now he's one of the third.

As such, the word "deserve" is no longer part of his professional vocabulary.

Since beginning his anthem protest one year ago, and subsequently expanding it on social media through a sprawling political awakening, Kaepernick has become the emblematic resister of this sporting generation.

That is not the reason teams don't want him. At least, not the entire reason. It is more specifically because he has a personal mandate that goes beyond the core mission, which is hurting people and catching a ball.

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The United States is churning. Every day of every week of football season, there would be a good reason to ask Kaepernick about the latest swirl. He's engaged, articulate and, most important of all, interesting. People want to hear what he has to say. Reporters would be irresponsible not to ask. Then they would feel compelled to ask his teammates about what he'd just said. It would tend to dominate proceedings. That's inevitable.

Every season, teams are cutting subsidiary players for less onerous interruptions – for having the poor judgment to sprain an ankle at the wrong time, or for dropping three balls in practice. The depth people are constantly being turned over, with very little notice.

Could you do both things at once – play football well and allow one of the non-playing football players to speak to current events during his spare time? You could. But football teams don't think that way. They aren't artists' retreats. They're paramilitary outfits, with all the anti-individualism that suggests. People who don't contribute to the mission are not permitted to stand out.

If Kaepernick were Von Miller, he could come out of the tunnel holding (not waving) a hammer and sickle and the Denver Broncos would find a way to live with it. But because Kaepernick is a backup rather than a Pro Bowler, no one wants the trouble.

What the league's teams are guilty of here is rank hypocrisy. No one wants to admit the obvious truth – that Kaepernick's profile is not worth the bother.

Instead, they've twisted themselves into knots claiming that a healthy 29-year-old who had the NFL's 23rd-highest quarterback rating last year can no longer play the quarterback position.

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"To me, the protests, all that, it wasn't even a factor for us," one anonymous executive told Sports Illustrated this week on the subject of not considering Kaepernick for a job. "For us, it was a system thing."

Oh, it's a system thing, all right. Not the system he's talking about, but a system thing nonetheless.

You would hope that just one team could see the value in jumping into the most pressing end of the American public discourse. That it could find room to be both a sports outfit and something more ambitious. There may even be a market for that.

But that would require bravery. Professional sports organizations are not brave. Few corporations are. Most are composed of company men who pretend to be iconoclasts and original thinkers when it suits them. What they do unerringly is find the most profitable route through every storm.

This willful blindness will not save the NFL or its teams from having to engage with Kaepernick. He doesn't need to be on the field to keep doing what he's doing. A prophet is most attractive when he's coming out of the desert, not when he's standing at a post-game podium in a suit talking about the nickel defence.

For all the to'ing and fro'ing over what is or isn't happening – most of it so distorted by political rage it has little relation to the main point – the one person who keeps his counsel is the man himself.

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Kaepernick appears comfortable with the way things are headed, having largely remained aloof on the subject of his football career. His mind has apparently moved to other places.

On Thursday, he posted posthumous birthday wishes to Black Panther martyr Fred Hampton, along with a quote: "You can kill the revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution."

If this is a battle of wills – one man against the sports-industrial complex – Kaepernick is winning. You can tell that by the fact that he's the one who doesn't feel the need to justify his position.

That Kaepernick is no longer a sportsman is beginning to seem beside the point. He's already made a boatload of money. He need never again work for a living. He's free to give himself over to full-time activism whenever and for however long he chooses.

Muhammad Ali challenged more minds than any athlete in history, and he didn't get in the ring every Sunday. His paucity of performance didn't weaken his impact. It gave him more time to devote to agit-prop. Long after he quit boxing, Ali was still at it, with just as large an audience.

All that to say, sport gives you the pulpit. It should not be confused with the thing itself. If the message penetrates, you can take the platform with you.

The NFL, for reasons that need not necessarily be conspiratorial or nefarious, can deny Colin Kaepernick employment. But functionally firing him doesn't stop the movement he is part of from spreading, or him from speaking about it.

In all likelihood, it has rather the opposite effect.

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