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O’Neil: Kaepernick’s availability shows how NFL teams can value popularity over performance

NFL teams have wrongfully avoided Colin Kaepernick in fear of upsetting their fans, writes Danny O'Neil. (AP)

Personnel decisions shouldn’t be a popularity contest.

Not when it comes to a player’s ability on the field. Not when it comes to his character off of it.

Seems like now is a good time to offer that reminder as the Seahawks consider adding Colin Kaepernick, a possibility that coach Pete Carroll acknowledged Monday on 710 ESPN Seattle with “Brock and Salk.”

Adding Kaepernick as a backup quarterback should be a no-brainer for the Seahawks. He’s better than current backup Trevone Boykin. Kaepernick is a possibility for Seattle only because so many other teams either refuse to consider him or are so afraid of angering a segment of their fan base that they won’t add a former Super Bowl starter.

That’s what politics will do. At least in today’s NFL.

Kaepernick’s decision against standing for the national anthem last season means that his addition would aggravate, maybe even enrage, a significant portion of any NFL team’s fan base. That’s not a very good reason not to sign him, though. Not unless you’re an NFL team that wants to use public opinion as a weather vane for all decision-making.

Michael Bennett says Seahawks are a perfect fit for Kaepernick

It may seem like that’s already happening. After all, any discussion of drafting or signing a controversial player becomes a public referendum on whether that’s the kind of person who should be in the NFL, and teams seem more willing than ever to let the opinions of their fan base render some players unemployable.

That’s not so troubling when the player in question is someone like Ray Rice or Greg Hardy. It’s more problematic when it comes to someone like Kaepernick, who didn’t do anything except exercise a constitutional right to express his opinion. How that opinion is characterized will tell you more about the politics of the person offering the description than they do about what Kaepernick did as a person or his future as a player.

Those who support his anthem protest will call him an activist bringing attention to the mistreatment of people in color. Those repulsed by his refusal to stand for the anthem last season will call him unpatriotic or even hypocritical after he revealed he did not vote in the presidential election.

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Kaepernick is unavoidably political at a time when antagonism is at an all-time high, not just between the two major political parties but among our population in general.

We’ve lost any ability to find a middle ground. To recognize that it’s possible to disagree with what Kaepernick did without being a racist, and it’s equally OK for a team to hire Kaepernick while disagreeing with his decision not to stand for the anthem last season, something he has already said he won’t continue in 2017.

And let’s be clear: Politics is why Kaepernick is still available. If there are jobs for two McCowns in this league, there’s certainly space to accommodate a guy who’s only four years removed from starting in a Super Bowl and having ESPN’s Ron Jaworski proclaim a chance that Kaepernick could become the greatest quarterback ever.

The fact that Kaepernick hasn’t been to the playoffs since then and has only won four of his last 24 starts explains why he’s no longer a starter. The fact that he’s not on a roster is because no team thinks the chance he will resurrect his career is worth the antagonism his signing will arouse.

Salk: Signing Kaepernick should be a “no-brainer” for the Seahawks

That’s a businessman’s perspective, though. Or a politician’s, and that’s a terrible way to run a football team because it substitutes popularity for morality. If every personnel decision boils down to a question of a player’s talent versus the trouble he’ll bring, a team is going to assemble a roster full of the most talented players that its fan base will tolerate as opposed to finding the players that fit within their employment criteria.

And that’s the most important thing for a team to have: a criteria. A framework for evaluating whether a given player fits, an assessment that takes into account on-field ability and off-field behavior.

Yet it seems that teams have become so accustomed to gauging popular opinion to determine whether a player is employable that they’ve stopped using their own criteria to make that decision.