The Manufactured Outrage Surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s GQ Cover

In what seems to have become a cottage industry within the media business, the steady diet of articles and airtime devoted to analyzing the aftermath of last year’s presidential election hasn’t exactly made for a better informed electorate. Nor has it made for a kinder Internet, which despite best efforts from well-meaning people, is fueled by outrage as much as America is fueled by Dunkin’.

It’s quite clear that American society has failed collectively to learn any lessons from 2016. Truth be told, it hasn’t learned any lessons from 2015, 2014, 2013… you catch the drift. And the latest example comes directly from a magazine cover. Again.

Talk to the right person or Russian bot on social media and you will find out that Colin Kaepernick has not only destroyed the NFL, but he has destroyed America, the military, the American flag, Papa John’s, and now, GQ. In the December issue of the venerated magazine, the exiled quarterback/very active activist was named the magazine’s ‘Citizen of the Year.’ Kaepernick is one of four public figures along with NBA superstar Kevin Durant, late night impresario Stephen Colbert and actress Gal Godot (Wonder Woman) who adorn covers of the print version of this special edition.

Kaepernick’s cover – and not the project centered around him by the magazine – has been another USB cord used to charge up some outrage. Yet beyond the usual stuff we’ve seen about the former Super Bowl participant, we’ve seen something else from the playbook in the form of another poorly conceived and copied meme from out of nowhere.

Yep, the man pictured above is Houston Texans star defensive end JJ Watt. He famously raised $37 million in relief funds to help his adopted hometown in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. And while he was not the only athlete or even public figure to make the clarion call for fundraising, Watt has certainly earned the widest praise during what had been an incredibly active and devastating hurricane season for the United States. (Here’s your reminder that some other American citizens haven’t had much help rebounding).

And because someone who was once seen on TV before had tweeted about it, Watt was slighted for an honor none of us knew existed. It adds on to the narrative that Kaepernick is the worst American to ever live, according to those still pissed off that athletes and sports media just won’t stick to sports.

Among all of the problems with this meme – and memes themselves are problems because they are all terrible – the most overlooked is how it uses the inaccurate and tasteless, but debatably effective, playbook that was used on Caitlyn Jenner.

For those who don’t recall, it was over two years ago when ESPN announced that the transgender former Olympian would be honored at its ESPY Awards with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Immediately after the news broke, it became a predictable, yet powerful flashpoint of… well, pick one. If you were still calling him ‘Bruce’ because that’s who he was born as, you were angry. If you felt that she wasn’t the best role model for the wider acceptance of trans people in society, you might have raised an eyebrow. If you had an issue because Jenner is a part of the Kardashian family, your blood pressure was through the roof. If you wondered how damaging it was for ESPN’s credibility, you probably memorized how to spell ‘schadenfreude’ during the company’s third round of layoffs in the last five years (Alex Putterman of Awful Announcing has an excellent and exhaustive piece about how this single moment turned the tide of public perception swiftly against ESPN).

Plenty of people were left wondering why the network couldn’t pay homage to someone else’s story, as was done in bringing up the tale of Lauren Hill – and for those that earnestly wondered why couldn’t ESPN honor her on the merits of her story alone, courage in the face of the cancer she succumbed to, that’s absolutely fair. Yet thanks to an infamous sports talk radio host, memes were born which spread like wildfire in like-minded circles.

So an award that had no actual nominees list before suddenly had one? And even though the concept that Noah Galloway, an Iraq War veteran who is also an incredible fitness celebrity, should be acknowledged on a platform such as the ESPYs isn’t wrong on its face, how he was cherry-picked by Jenner’s detractors was less a reflection of who he is than it was how much people really hate Jenner and/or the transgender community.

While not as loud as what came from the Caitlyn Jenner story, the play design used for the Kaepernick GQ cover has been just as successful in getting people riled up.

These two men should be lauded – they have been and should continue to be praised – for their humanitarian efforts. For Watt, who has used the limelight for causes in the same vein as many a pro athlete, what he accomplished is remarkable not only because of how much money was raised, but how quickly it was raised. And so long as it’s not misappropriated like donations have been mismanaged in prior crises, this money can do something, even if it cannot fully make up for what’s been lost by so many in the affected region. Watt’s donations will hopefully have long-lasting impact on Texas’ recovery. The currently-injured star will continue to use his fame for noble causes when called upon. He’s not new to athlete philanthropy, but his actions in Hurricane Harvey’s wake have grabbed attention in a way that those from other public figures have not. There are great lessons to learn from Watt’s actions.

For Kaepernick, his story may be out there, but it feels lost every time his name is mentioned by the aggrieved. His approach to the cause of calling out police brutality against American citizens of color became the most prominent step in this generation’s movement of athlete activism, a movement that began before he sat, then kneeled, during the national anthem. However, by having to tell the world of his stance in the first place, he made a country that is addicted to its its football pay attention in a way that it hadn’t been done before. Specifically, he made “ordinary Americans” pay attention, whether they liked it or not. Kaepernick has been putting his money and time where his mouth is for over a year while not only trying to get back in the NFL, but as his detractors kept moving the goal posts on his activism. His actions inspired his peers to push back against a league that only wants selective causes to be supported by its players. He inspired people, athletic and far from athletic, to speak out about and act for social justice. And he even made this happen, a rare moment of Big Media acknowledging a major flaw.

But the lessons about recognizing fake news, misleading narratives and the like continue to be ignored by a wide section of people who want to sling arrows for no reason other than because they’re looking for a fight. Ticking off ‘libtards’ and hopping on Twitter to watch someone ‘trigger some (conservative) snowflakes’ wasn’t directly born out of last fall’s election, but that time certainly put a spotlight on the tools the outraged use against each other.

The incredibly unfortunate part in this strain of commentary is that people are willing to use someone’s humanitarian efforts to fuel her or his own rage, not letting those efforts shine solely on merit. Watt is a stand-in for any athlete who performed a great deed that could be hailed as a counter to Kaepernick’s very existence. For those who hate Kaepernick’s message, it wouldn’t matter if he could have single-handedly cured all diseases, ended all wars and ‘created jobs for the middle class.’ Watt would be propped up against Kaepernick because he didn’t wear socks depicting cops as pigs, didn’t wear a Fidel Castro t-shirt during a post-game press conference, and didn’t publicly abstain from voting last November.

The GQ covers and the 2015 ESPYs were clear examples of false equivalency, with the former reflecting a simmering rage about the NFL’s tumult in recent seasons, and the latter showing a starting point to ESPN’s apparent failure at still being the most essential brand on television. Both, however, achieve the same goal in keeping people who are allergic to nuance, empathy and common sense on the opposing side of progress. The only takeaway that people in the outrage community seem to have held onto from these last two years is that the tactics of how to divide and conquer different segments of society are still incredibly effective.

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