Sitting with Kaepernick: Why these women are opting out of fantasy football

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Supporting Colin Kaepernick meant opting out of fantasy football for some fans.

As NFL players suit up and return to the gridiron, some fans have decided to give up a season of rooting for their home team and favorite players. There will be no draft boards, no kitschy fantasy football team name and definitely no nail-biting, down-to-the-wire wins to celebrate. Instead, they're gearing up to take on the NFL and team owners in defense of quarterback-activist Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick protested social inequality by kneeling during the national anthem before games last season. He opted out of his San Francisco 49ers contract in March and remains a free agent, with the new season just 23 days away.

Recently, more than 170,000 people signed the "#NoKaepernickNoNFL" petition on Change.org, pledging to boycott the league until Kaepernick is added to a roster. Among the many fans contemplating a protest are women, who make up 45 percent of the NFL's audience and 34 percent of the fantasy sports market.

Despite playing fantasy football for seven seasons and subscribing to premium NFL television packages, Kimberly Bennett, a 38-year-old attorney and lifelong New York Giants fan, has made the difficult decision to deprive herself of NFL enjoyment. "I feel like my hand was forced," she said.

She's not alone. Kellie Hockless, 38, said her avidity for the game started to wane last season. "I can't even name all of the starting quarterbacks anymore," the Brooklyn resident said when discussing her lack of enthusiasm for the 2017 season.

Kaepernick's 2016 protest being misrepresented as anti-American, anti-military and anti-law enforcement along with the NFL's handling of multiple domestic incidents and lukewarm response to the dangers of concussions turned Hockless off from the game a year ago.

"With each day it becomes more and more evident that this game that we love so much is not good for human beings to play," she said.

In speaking of her choice to fully boycott the upcoming season if Kaepernick remains unsigned, she said of the NFL, "They don't care about anything else besides the bottom line. Not human life. Not women. Not black lives -- nothing."

Ohio native and academic adviser Natalie Everett, 38, views the NFL's shunning of Kaepernick as a pointed message to not just Kaep, but other players, as well. "When a person becomes too outspoken and does more than entertain the masses, usually there's somebody that comes in and wants to humble them a little bit," Everett said.

And therein lies the issue for most pro-Kaepernick fans. The collective refusal by NFL owners to sign Kaep can't be explained away for football reasons alone. Though his production has declined in recent years, last season he started 12 games, threw for 2,241 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, and posted a 90.7 passer rating. He was far from being the least-efficient quarterback in the league.

When starting quarterback Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens went down with an injury that will prevent him from playing in the preseason, it was reported that the Ravens were interested in signing Kaepernick. However, any optimism about Kaepernick landing that job diminished when it was reported that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was resistant to the idea.

Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins signed 34-year-old quarterback Jay Cutler out of retirement to replace Ryan Tannehill -- who will undergo knee surgery -- without giving Kaepernick a shot at the starting job.

Leslie Faison, a 50-year-old financial services professional and Kaepernick supporter, thinks the NFL is indeed blackballing the quarterback, but she is staying in the fantasy football game because she doesn't think a boycott will have much impact. "[Kaepernick] is trying to change hearts and minds," she said. "And it's tough to do that."

For other fans, boycotting the NFL is gratifying. Bennett, who participated in Black Lives Matter marches in New York and Atlanta, said, "Where I see myself in the political spectrum, it's a hard struggle to not feel like a hypocrite" if she were to support the league.

She continued, "These are black men that are playing in the league, and I fear as a black woman what could happen to black men all of the time -- my brother, my cousins and nephews."

Black men represent nearly 70 percent of all NFL players. Kaepernick's awareness-raising protest directly affects each of them in some way, whether they acknowledge that or not. NFL players such as Seattle Seahawks teammates Doug Baldwin, Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman, as well as Philadelphia Eagles veteran Malcolm Jenkins and the Green Bay Packers' Martellus Bennett, have publicly taken a pro-Kaepernick stance. But a handful of players out of the more than 1,700 in the league, standing with (or publicly speaking out for) Kaepernick isn't enough representation to challenge the NFL and its owners.

If there is strength in numbers, why aren't more NFL players banding together to support Kaepernick? After all, as Atlanta Falcons fan Kellie Jenkins said, "The league can't take a snap without African-American players."

Jenkins, 47, a communications director for a Georgia NAACP chapter, offered this thought: "From a player's standpoint, they need to feel more empowered socially. They know they're going to be scrutinized, whether it's by the media, fans, or owners."

Faison agreed, saying players don't understand their worth. "What bothers me is that they don't see or don't understand themselves to be anything more than a commodity," she said.

Faison also made the point that the average NFL career lasts just three years. "You've got a lot more time than that to be living in this world [as a black man]," she said.

For these female fans, and those who plan to join them in protest, this is bigger than football. They're aware the overall impact their decision to boycott has on Kaepernick's NFL future is likely inconsequential. However, they're at peace with their choice to stand with Kaepernick, even if that means saying goodbye to lifelong traditions.

Jenkins, who has been successful playing fantasy football for the past two decades, summed up her commitment to Kaepernick with the following statement: "To create change, you have to be about change. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, and that's what Kaepernick has done. I'm proud of him."

Shana Renee is the founder and editor-in-chief of All Sports Everything and a passionate New York Jets, Knicks and Yankees fan. Follow her sports talk on Twitter at @ItsShanaRenee.

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