Colin Kaepernick is back in the game — on the virtual gridiron. For the first time since the 2016 season, when the former San Francisco 49ers signal-caller began kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality in the United States, Kaepernick will return to the Madden NFL video game on Tuesday, EA Sports announced.
Kaepernick, who remains unsigned by an NFL team, makes his virtual NFL comeback as the top free-agent quarterback in Madden 21, with an 81 overall rating. His rating places him among the elite quarterbacks on Madden 21 and in the top 15 of the video game’s 111 total quarterbacks.
EA Sports released the following statement on Tuesday:
“Colin Kaepernick is one of the top free agents in football and a starting-caliber quarterback. The team at EA SPORTS, along with millions of Madden NFL fans, want to see him back in our game. …
“Knowing that our EA SPORTS experiences are platforms for players to create, we want to make Madden NFL a place that reflects Colin’s position and talent, rates him as a starting QB, and empowers our fans to express their hopes for the future of football. We’ve worked with Colin to make this possible, and we’re excited to bring it to all of you today.”
Kaepernick made his Madden debut as a rookie in 2011 before emerging as one of the faces in both the NFL and the video game. He was featured in Madden television commercials for three straight years from 2013 to 2015 — more than any player in the game’s history, according to EA Sports. Before this year, Kaepernick’s last appearance in the game came in Madden 17, which was released on Aug. 23, 2016, nine days after a preseason game between the 49ers and Houston Texans, when the then-backup quarterback decided not to stand during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” marking his first pregame protest against “systemic oppression, racism, police terrorism and injustice.” EA Sports responded at the time by updating Madden’s in-game commentary that briefly addressed the protest movement throughout the NFL sparked by Kaepernick.
According to EA Sports, after Kaepernick became a free agent following the 2016 NFL season, he was not included in the group licensing agreement, which is negotiated through the NFL Players Association, meaning Madden lost the rights to the quarterback’s likeness. Thus, Kaepernick did not appear in Madden 18, Madden 19 or Madden 20. According to EA Sports, his name was also mistakenly removed from two songs — Mike WiLL Made-It’s “Bars of Soap” and YG’s “Big Bank” (featuring Big Sean, 2 Chainz and Nicki Minaj) — featured on the soundtracks of Madden 18 and Madden 19, respectively. Both instances of censorship of Kaepernick’s name in the video game were discovered by Madden users.
“We made an unfortunate mistake with our Madden NFL soundtrack,” EA Sports said in 2018 before the game was updated. “Members of our team misunderstood the fact that while we don’t have rights to include Colin Kaepernick in the game, this doesn’t affect soundtracks. We messed up, and the edit should never have happened. … We meant no disrespect, and we apologize to Colin, to YG and Big Sean, to the NFL, to all of their fans and our players for this mistake.”
This past summer, ahead of the release of Madden 21, EA Sports approached Kaepernick to negotiate the rights to his likeness so that he could return to the game for the first time in four years. According to multiple sources familiar with the negotiations, Kaepernick was “hands-on” in determining exactly how his avatar was depicted in Madden 21. EA Sports confirmed that Kaepernick requested that his player in the game wear an Afro — an update from his most recent head image in 2016 that portrayed him in Madden 17 with cornrows. Also, according to multiple sources, Kaepernick weighed in heavily on his avatar’s signature celebration — a Black Power fist — to reflect how he celebrated scoring plays the last time he took to the real-life football field during the 2016 NFL season.
As of Tuesday’s update, Madden 21 users will have the opportunity in the Franchise game mode to sign Kaepernick on any team in the NFL. And during NFL kickoff weekend from Thursday to Saturday, Madden 21 will be free to play for everyone, according to EA Sports, so all users have a chance to game as Kaepernick throughout Week 1.
After reaching a peak overall rating of 89 in both 2013’s anniversary Madden 25 and Madden 15 before dropping to 81 in Madden 16 and 74 in Madden 17, Kaepernick makes his long-awaited return to the game with an 81 rating determined by data-driven simulations that took his ongoing free agency into account, according to EA Sports. In Madden 21, Kaepernick ranks behind only 14 signal-callers — Patrick Mahomes (99), Russell Wilson (97), cover athlete Lamar Jackson (94), Drew Brees (93), Tom Brady (90), Aaron Rodgers (89), Matt Ryan (87), Deshaun Watson (86), Carson Wentz (84), Dak Prescott (84), Jimmy Garoppolo (83), Matthew Stafford (83), Kirk Cousins (82), Philip Rivers (82) — while sharing the same rating as Ben Roethlisberger. He ranks ahead of 96 Madden 21 quarterbacks, notably Ryan Tannehill (80), Cam Newton (78), Baker Mayfield (78), Kyler Murray (77), Jared Goff (76), Joe Burrow (76) and Teddy Bridgewater (75). Yet in Franchise mode, there’s no limit to Kaepernick’s in-game skill, with gamers receiving the flexibility to adjust the quarterback’s rating as high as the exclusive 99 club.
“Now’s your chance,” reads Tuesday’s Gridiron Notes to the game’s users, “to bring back Kap and be the virtual GM that signs one of the most dynamic QBs in the game.”
Kaepernick also recently teamed up with filmmaker Ava DuVernay to produce a Netflix docuseries about his early life, besides partnering with Disney to produce another docuseries and create other content. (Disney owns The Undefeated.)
For many fans in the world of both football and gaming, this moment holds significance. For the first time in years, the people who regard Kaepernick as a hero in his fight for racial justice will have the opportunity to see his talent back on the football field — even if, for the time being, that experience is only in a video game.