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Colin Kaepernick remains the NFL's inconvenient truth

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick pumps his fist as he acknowledges the cheers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on December 24, 2016. Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY Sports.

MINNEAPOLIS — It's a testament to the nation's limited attention span that the NFL seems to have moved on from the national anthem protests that inspired the president of the United States to take direct aim at the league's players and owners in September.

That's what will define the 2017 season, not whether the Patriots or Eagles win Super Bowl LII on Sunday, Feb. 4.

Yet it was hardly a hot topic when players were made available to reporters on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at Mall of America. Few were asked to revisit the issue or even predict whether anyone might take a knee during the anthem Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

"I probably don't see anybody kneeling, at least on our side," Eagles receiver Torrey Smith said.

That's because the Eagles have been at the forefront of a movement to use the NFL's media profile and financial might to channel protest into change. It's a positive step for a league that circled the wagons when President Donald Trump took the league into his sights during a rally for Alabama Senate candidate Luther Strange on Friday, Sept. 22.

By Sunday, two days later, even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was taking a knee alongside players. The Vikings, including owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, locked arms in a sign of unity. Not everyone in the NFL agreed on the issue, but they were quick to circle the wagons when they came under fire.

Behind the scenes, Eagles players Smith, Malcolm Jenkins and recently retired Buffalo receiver Anquan Boldin were meeting with team owner Jeffrey Lurie and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss criminal justice reform.

This, you may or may not recall, was the reason then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem in a small but resonant gesture of civil disobedience during a preseason game in August 2016.

"You protest for attention, to bring attention," Smith said Tuesday. "There are a lot of guys — not everyone — who feel like the league is trying to help us in our platform."

Last week, the NFL announced the creation of a joint player/owner effort focused on social justice called Let's Listen Together. In making the announcement, Goodell said, "Their work has deepened our understanding of the unique platform we have to help advance progress in a profound and unifying way."

So, yes, peaceful protest works.

Whether the NFL is doing this for purely humanitarian reasons or to keep critics at bay is irrelevant, although in this case one prefers to accept that this is about more than keeping the recalcitrant on their feet during the national anthem.

Asked if he'd like to see such protests continue next season, Smith said, "The league is helping us try to create real change, so protesting isn't really the issue. It's about creating real change, and the league is helping us with that."

Kaepernick remains the inconvenient truth.

Despite leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl after replacing Alex Smith in 2012, and to the NFC championship in his first full season as starter, he hasn't played a game since going 1-10 as a starter in 2016. Compare that resume to Case Keenum's before he led the Vikings to the NFC title game this season.

Smith called Kaepernick's inability to get another shot the "hole" in the NFL's largesse.

"Colin Kaepernick made people uncomfortable. That's not supposed to be like that," he said. "You're addressing something that people want to shoo under the rug. It's great that progress has been made; more can be done. ... One of those things is Colin Kaepernick having the opportunity to play.

"It's not because of his talent, it's because people are concerned about the media hit. That's not fair."

Well, taking a knee has worked once.

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