J.J. Watt and Colin Kaepernick began life only 15 miles and two years apart.  Watt is a Pewaukee, Wisconsin native and Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee, though given up for adoption and raised by parents in Fond du Lac. Kaepernick’s parents relocated to Turlock California when he was four.  Both Watt and Kaepernick had much in common as they grew into talented football players in two parent households that worshipped the Green Bay Packers, though both ended up elsewhere professionally. In 2011, Watt, who played college ball in Wisconsin, was drafted by Houston and Kaepernick, whose college was Nevada, by San Francisco, Watt 11th overall and Kaepernick 36th.

Young Colin Kaepernick and a friend, Lambeau Field

You’d be hard pressed to name two pro athletes, who started out with such a parallel upbringing, right up until NFL draft day. The contrast in their outcomes personally and professionally is equally remarkable. Both had setbacks. Watt effectively lost the entire 2016 season because of a back injury. Kaepernick took the 49ers to the NFC championship game in 2013, was injured in 2015 and had an unspectacular 2016 and opted out of the final year of his contract. It’s believed be walked away from $14 million in doing so.

Now, in the eyes of Americans, J.J. Watt is a hero and Colin Kaepernick is a pariah.

Watt kicked off a campaign to fundraise for Hurricane Harvey victims less than a week ago with a modest goal of $200,000.

Donors all over the cultural scale, from the Packers to Ellen to Drake have driven that up to $13 million, as of today. It will certainly go higher. Even Commissioner Roger Goodell kicked in.

Not to cheapen his generosity, but you have to believe Goodell is starved for good publicity for the NFL. To a large part, that’s because a Colin Kaepernick inspired movement to disrespect the National Anthem by kneeling has wounded the NFL. Football audiences tumbled 8% in 2016. And yes, research indicates it’s because of what Kaepernick started. Some in American media and culture believe not only does Kaepernick and others have a right to kneel and attack America, but they should be praised by Americans for doing so and Kaep should even get an NFL contract for it. Aaron Rodgers surmised Kaep would have a contract if it were not for the things he has said and done. Rodgers appeared to be sympathetic to Kaepernick, but the Green Bay quarterback himself is not protesting and demanding a contract. Matt Stafford is now the highest paid NFL quarterback.  He’s not protesting either, though we should protest he now makes more than Rodgers, Brady, and other QBs who have produced far more.

Kaepernick has pledged money to charity, albeit not to Harvey victims.  He has said he’ll give $1 million and has already donated to youth outreach organizations who ostensibly feel the same way he does about the National Anthem and America.

If Colin Kaepernick has a right to judge America, NFL fans and ownership certainly have a right to judge him.  We’re not compelled to pay him for opinions we find despicable. That’s not how free speech works, despite the protestations of some media and culture that celebrate Americans who attack America at this time in our history.

J.J. Watt, on the other hand, is being rewarded in the court of public opinion for his words and efforts, not in terms of compensation for an NFL contract, but with donations that recognize the social good he wants to do for victims in the city that already pays him handsomely as a player. Watt may not judge Kaepernick, but we can. Kaepernick walked away from his NFL contract.  Neither owners nor his boosters certainly are not ponying up Harvey grade cash for the unsigned Kaepernick’s words and deeds.  In America, both J.J. Watt and Colin Kaepernick are getting what they deserve.