Lowell Cohn: 49ers should have cut Colin Kaepernick

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The 49ers made a football decision to keep Colin Kaepernick, strictly speaking. They made the wrong football decision, strictly speaking.

First, let’s get things straight. Kaepernick made his status on the team complicated when he didn’t stand for the national anthem at the third and fourth exhibition games and, it turns out, at the two previous games — almost no one knew about the first two games. Just about everyone defends his prerogative not to stand, and just about everyone agrees it’s good to call attention to the plight of minorities, notably the killings of young black men by some police officers.

Those are crucial issues in our society, but they are not football issues. For Kaepernick, football issues come first. As trivial as this may sound, Kaepernick is a football player on a football team and, until the 49ers retained him on Saturday, his football future was up for grabs. It still may be.

Please see his “case” in the context of football, where it belongs. He was not a social activist until quite recently. But he has been a football player a long time, a member of 49ers since 2011.

This is a football story only. This story is at the heart of football. The 49ers should have cut him for the good of the team.

As a football player, he is causing strife. A player is never supposed to cause strife even for the noblest reasons, and it’s not entirely clear what Kaepernick’s deep-down reasons are. They may not be clear to him.

The other day, the Santa Clara police said they may not provide security at 49ers games if the Niners don’t discipline Kaepernick. They are offended by Kaepernick’s statements about police, by Kaepernick’s generalizing about police brutality. Making it seem all police are bad people, even though Kaepernick says he did not mean that.

And the police are offended Kaepernick wore socks with pictures of police as pigs. When I went to Stanford in the socially impassioned ’60s, radical students called police “pigs of the power structure.” Kaepernick’s socks call police that name even if Kaepernick doesn’t understand that. The police have every right to be angry at him.

Kaepernick is causing the 49ers strife in their community.

Then there’s the issue of the team, the football issue, the most important issue, the only issue.

To be precise, it’s the issue of team unity. The relation between races is the most intense, most troubling, most divisive concern in our country. You can bet it’s serious on the 49ers. When Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem at the fourth exhibition game in San Diego — when people knew in advance he wouldn’t stand — Eric Reid kneeled with him. But other 49ers stood at attention, some with hand over heart. When the singer was done, some players applauded.

What does that mean?

It means two camps are forming — have formed already. These are not casual camps. These are not camps debating how to tie shoelaces or discussing the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. These camps feel passionately about the anthem and police actions toward African-Americans. Players are on one side or the other, no middle ground, no easy compromises. This is the San Andreas Fault running down the middle of the team.

When things go bad this season — and brother will they — an earthquake is coming.

The 49ers never should have allowed this fault to develop. They had a choice. They should have headed off Kaepernick long ago. Or released him on cut-down day.

Here’s what my friend Ira Miller wrote for The Sports Xchange about Kaepernick and the Niners:

“Football is the ultimate team game, and no matter what you think of a play, a player, a plan or a gesture, success in football requires everybody on a team sacrificing their individuality for the team’s goals. Players rarely are allowed to do what they want if it impacts the team. Simple as that. And there is no question Kaepernick’s sit-down impacts the 49ers. In a game so strongly focused on ‘team,’ players frequently subjugate their own thoughts and beliefs for the team’s benefit.”

Coaches go to extremes to create team unity. Bill Walsh told me he would be happy for the players to dislike him — as long as they disliked him together. That way they would bond as a team, spit in Walsh’s eye as a team. Walsh told me some coaches intentionally make players hate them as a bonding mechanism for them.

It is said Jim Harbaugh portrayed 49ers management as the enemy, whether or not he believed that. He needed an enemy for a players’ rallying point. A good football team fights together as a unit, does not fight internally.

Chip Kelly has not shown he understands this. He never should have allowed Kaepernick to take such a prominent role in the team’s narrative, should not have allowed Kaepernick to write the narrative. The tail wagging the dog. Kelly has been criticized for lacking a sense of human relations, for not understanding what keeps a team together. This episode does not improve his reputation.

Kelly spoke to the media by phone on Saturday. I asked if he’s concerned Kaepernick will be divisive.

“When he’s here at 4949, he’s all about football and all about work,” Kelly said. That statement is demonstrably untrue.

Another reporter asked if Kelly is concerned about the bad national attention Kaepernick and the 49ers will get every week.

“How he’s been with us,” Kelly said, “I have no issues with Kap at all.”

He should.

After Ira Miller sent me his article, we spoke on the phone.

“Would Bill let this happen?” he asked me. He meant would Bill Walsh allow the whole Kaepernick thing to occur.

“No,” I said with absolute conviction.

“Bill never would have let it come to this,” Ira said. “He didn’t let things fester. Chip Kelly said Kaepernick can do whatever he wants. What’s up with that?”

Indeed. What exactly is up with that?

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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