Colin Kaepernick pays the price after using his platform to speak up on social issues

What is the cost of speaking your mind in the NFL?

In the case of Colin Kaepernick, the answer is shaping up to be millions of dollars.

Four years ago, it was unthinkable to imagine that not a single NFL team would want Kaepernick.

After starting his second season as a backup, Kaepernick took over as the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback midway through the 2012 season after an injury to starter Alex Smith. Kaepernick brought them all the way to the Super Bowl.

After only two seasons as a starter, Kaepernick already had playoff wins over future league MVP’s Aaron Rodgers (in back-to-back years), Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. He had a record of 17-6 as a starter in the regular season in the first two seasons of his career.

But since opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers on March 3, Kaepernick remains unsigned as the free agent market cools down.

The number one reason why a 29-year old quarterback who once seemed so promising remains unsigned is obvious: he’s not the same quarterback as he was back then.

In the last three seasons, the 49ers are 11-24 in games Kaepernick has started. He has struggled throwing from the pocket as NFL teams have adjusted to his scrambling style.

The other reason why he remains unsigned is a lot harder to swallow. Whether he wanted it or not, Kaepernick is now a civil rights icon in a league that discourages individual expression.

He made national news this past season when he decided to kneel for the National Anthem before every game, inspired by oppression of minorities in the United States. This past season, he frequently used his platform and media access to give his take on social issues. Even while still a free agent, he has continued to donate money to various causes, most recently a $50,000 donation to Meals on Wheels just last week.

It is suspicious for NFL teams to not want a quarterback who played in the Super Bowl four years ago. So far this offseason, several quarterbacks with less success in the past and less talent than Kaepernick have already signed new deals.

Geno Smith (28 career touchdowns, 36 career interceptions) found a new team in free agency. EJ Manuel (three starts in the last two seasons) found a team in free agency. Mike Glennon (career 5-13 record as a starter, 11 pass attempts since 2014) got a brand new $45 million contract.

Yet, three weeks into free agency, Kaepernick is hearing crickets.

And based on a report by Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman, that does not seem likely to change any time soon.

One anonymous AFC General Manager told Freeman that in his estimation, 60 percent of NFL owners “genuinely hate” Kaepernick and want “to stop other players from doing what he did.”

Even if Kaepernick’s no longer capable of being a starter, which is still in question, he’s surely still a high-end backup at this point. As the 49ers organization has crumbled around him over the past two years, he has still shown that he belongs in the NFL in some capacity. Last season, he threw 19 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

Rarely do quarterbacks with this much playoff experience make it to the open market at such a young age. At the very least, that experience would make him valuable to some team as a backup.

For this reason, I do expect that at any point between now and the beginning of next season, a team will gamble on Kaepernick. The NFL is a league that requires a competent quarterback for success and a team that doesn’t have one will get desperate.

But players are only paid as the market dictates, and in Kaepernick’s case, the market is dry. He will likely be paid at a rate that is beneath what he would have otherwise earned.

The treatment of Kaepernick as a free agent will not be lost on the minds of other NFL players. The average NFL career is only 3.3 years, according to the NFL Player Association. Every NFL player who signs a new contract after their rookie deal must have the expectation that it may be the last one he ever will have.

NFL owners are sending a message to their players with their hesitance to sign Kaepernick: shut up and play.

There’s a reason why athletes, who have the platform to speak up on social issues, so often choose to keep quiet.

In the NFL, social activism is allowed, but partake at your own risk. It may cost you.

Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at