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‘For Me, It’s Personal.’ NFL Fans Boycott Football As Colin Kaepernick Goes Unemployed

5 minute read

For half a century, Mindy Reed has enjoyed a love affair with the NFL. As one of three daughters, she bonded with her father, a machinist living in Connecticut, over football. She wore a Bart Starr jersey as a kid, and recalls seeing Joe Namath play at the Yale Bowl in a 1969 exhibition game. As Reed climbed the corporate ladder at Dell in the 1980s and 90s, her football knowledge served as entrée into the old boys’ club. After switching careers — Reed, 61, is now a librarian in Austin — she continued to consume football. Reed rooted for the Seattle Seahawks, because wide receiver Tyler Lockett attended her alma mater, Kansas State.

But, Reed swears, now she’s done.

Reed plans on boycotting the NFL this season because no team has offered a job to ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose peaceful protest of police brutality during the National Anthem last season sparked a firestorm. It’s not just that teams haven’t extended an offer to Kaepernick, once one of the most promising signal callers in the league, who led the Niners to a Super Bowl in 2013, and threw an admirable 16 touchdown passes, against just four interceptions, for an undermanned San Francisco team a year ago. No team even invited him to training camp for a tryout.

So when an NFL commercial comes on TV, Reed immediately flips the channel. “I don’t take this lightly,” she says about her boycott, citing the important role football has played in her life. “But a line has been crossed, as far as I’m concerned.” Reed, who is white, believes Kaepernick’s protest against the killing of unarmed black people is completely justified. She says police regularly pull over her husband, who is African-American, for “driving while black.”

“For me, it’s personal,” says Reed. “We need to support people who remind us we don’t live in a post-racial society.”

Reed joins a growing number of Americans who say they will swear off NFL football until a team signs Kaepernick. A #NoKaepernickNoNFL petition on Change.org has received over 175,000 signatures. Hundreds of Kaepernick supporters rallied outside of NFL headquarters in New York City in August. If the boycotters follow through on their promises to stop watching games and buying merchandise, NFL owners may see a dent in their bottom lines. They feared fans would walk out on them if they signed the controversial QB. But by steering clear of Kaepernick, they’ll likely get boycotted anyway.

“There are probably more people out there who are against Colin Kaepernick protesting than there are people who support him,” says Vic Oyedeji, an African-American NFL fan who started the Change.org petition. “But at the end of the day, the people supporting Colin will have enough of a voice to make a change.”

NFL teams have signed more than 30 quarterbacks not named Colin Kaepernick to contracts since Kaepernick opted out of his 49ers deal in March. (If Kaepernick had not opted out, the 49ers were planning on cutting him; new coach Kyle Shanahan prefers traditional pocket passers for his system). That figure does not include 2017 draft picks, or QBs who re-signed with their squads. But it otherwise includes 19 players who have never completed a pass in an NFL regular season game. Kaepernick’s completed 1,011.

How did this happen? While Kaepernick is almost certainly a less effective player than he was during his Super Bowl run, many fans are convinced that NFL teams have blacklisted him because of his anthem protest. In July, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Buscotti acknowledged that signing Kaepernick could offend his customers; he requested that Ravens fans “pray for us” as the team contemplated offering Kaepernick a contract. NFL players who have been convicted of drunk driving, obstruction of justice, theft, gun possession, domestic violence, assault, vehicular manslaughter, and other crimes have returned to the field. Baltimore passed on Kaepernick.

Watching a team like the Miami Dolphins pull Jay Cutler, a white quarterback with inferior statistics during his injury-ridden 2016 campaign, out of retirement rather than give Kaepernick a shot strikes a raw nerve for many fans. “What we’re actually seeing in real time is the more qualified black guy being passed over for a less qualified white guy, for non-football reasons,” says J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore attorney — and fan of the Ravens and Washington Redskins — who plans to skip the NFL this year. Boycotters fear Kaepernick’s situation sets a dangerous precedent. “If footballs players can’t express themselves in a peaceful way, it’s almost like saying they can’t be free in a free country,” says Derek Harris, a high school assistant principal in New York City. “The NFL has a right not to choose Kaepernick. We have a right to not support the sport.”

Some Kaepernick supporters, however, consider an NFL boycott misguided. “Take the picket signs and go protest a police commissioner, a mayor, a city council,” says Shelby Jones, a tennis pro in Washington, D.C. who is African-American. “Protest the people in civic duty who brought about the Colin Kaepernick protest. There is a fight going on. And we’re fighting the wrong person.”

Regardless, the boycotters are sticking to their plan. For hardcore NFL fans, tuning out football won’t be easy. “But I’ll get used to it,” says Oyedeji. “We are all creatures of habit. I’m doing my duty as a person of color.” Reed, the Austin librarian and half-century supporter of the NFL, has come to terms with her withdrawal. If Kaepernick signs, she’ll be back. In the meantime, she’ll be doing other things this fall.

“Who knows what I might discover out there,” says Reed. “I certainly know how to read a book.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com