Colin Kaepernick is arguably the most talked-about quarterback in the NFL despite being removed from it since last season. Now that the free agent has filed a collective bargaining grievance against the NFL, arguing team owners colluded among themselves and with President Trump to keep him unemployed, Kaepernick’s relevance to the game won’t fade any time soon.
Kaepernick became a household name outside of football when, as a San Francisco 49er, he began kneeling for the national anthem in August 2016. When first asked about it, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Other players quickly followed in Kaepernick’s footsteps, and the gesture has since polarized the country in both sports and politics. Leftist activists galvanized support behind Kaepernick, while conservative fans continue to view the protest as disrespect to the flag and U.S. armed services.
Yes, It’s About the Flag. Kaepernick Even Said So
No matter how much Kaepernick supporters argue their protest has nothing to do with the flag, Kaepernick explicitly said otherwise. You can’t use the flag in a demonstration, speak negatively about the flag, then expect people to accept the flag has nothing to do with your protest. Furthermore, the NFL can’t truly honor the military in November with their Salute to Service campaign while its players kneel for a flag our service members wear on their uniforms and fight to protect.
These points of dissention, among others, reached such a fever pitch that even President Trump responded to the controversy, demanding NFL owners force their players to stand. Kaepernick’s grievance filing referenced Trump’s comments, asserting “NFL and NFL Team Owners have colluded to deprive Mr. Kaepernick of employment rights in retaliation for Mr. Kaepernick’s leadership and advocacy for equality and social justice and his bringing awareness to peculiar institutions still undermining racial equality in the United States…and in response to coercion and calculated coordination from the Executive Branch of the United States government.”
On Sunday night Kaepernick’s attorney Mark Geragos posted a statement on Twitter.
“If the NFL (as well as all professional sports leagues) is to remain a meritocracy, then principled and peaceful political protest — which the owners themselves made great theater imitating weeks ago — should not be punished,” Geragos wrote. “Athletes should not be denied employment based on partisan political provocation by the executive branch of our government. Such a precedent threatens all patriotic Americans and harkens back to our darkest days as a nation.”
The NFL players’ union said it would support the grievance, which was filed through the arbitration system that’s part of the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
Collusion Wasn’t Needed to Decide Not to Hire Kaepernick
First it’s important to understand what collusion means. In sports, collusion occurs when multiple teams, or at least one team and the league, collaborate in depriving a player of a contractually earned right. This right is stated in the collective bargaining agreement, specifically in Article 17, signed by both the players’ association and the league. Essentially, a group of teams cannot hinder a free agent’s right for negotiation in a conspiracy to deny that player an opportunity to sign somewhere.
As former Major League Baseball slugger Barry Bonds figured out, collusion is extremely difficult to prove since it relies on—go figure—proof. In 2009, Bonds, still a capable hitter, tried unsuccessfully to sign with a team for the league minimum. Bonds also struggled defensively and at the time faced felony charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. It took six years, but an arbitrator finally ruled that even if Bonds’ theory was correct, he lacked sufficient evidence to support his claim.
Kaepernick’s case includes specific examples of teams in need of a quarterback that had reasons to avoid him separate from anthem protests. When Miami’s starting quarterback went down, the team signed Jay Cutler . Besides the fact that Cutler and Dolphins head coach Adam Gase had worked together in the past, there was one other thing: Kaepernick’s blatant ignorance about former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
In a press conference last year, Kaepernick wore a shirt depicting conversations between Castro and Malcolm X. He defended the shirt because of Malcom X’s “open mind to be willing to hear different aspects of people’s views.” Here’s a view, Kaepernick. It’s hypocritical to launch a protest arguing systemic oppression as you make a lifelong systemic oppressor a fashion statement. Oh, and by the way, Miami has the largest Cuban-American population of all U.S. metropolitan areas. It’s entirely within an owner’s right to not want to offend a large demographic of his fans.
Here’s another example of Kaepernick keeping himself out of the league and not owners: An inflammatory meme Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab, posted about Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. When Ravens QB Joe Flacco dealt with injury earlier in the season, talk circulated that perhaps the Ravens might give Kaepernick a shot. At one point in the preseason, Bisciotti said they were “keeping the door open” to the possibility of Kaepernick.
Yet in Article 1, Section 14 of Kaepernick’s grievance, his attorney wrote, “NFL General Managers and team leaders have referred to directives from NFL owners to not let Mr. Kaepernick so much as practice with a team.” That’s blatantly not true, according to Bisciotti’s public comments, and again winning a collusion suit requires proof.
Furthermore, Diab, a nationally syndicated radio personality who has dated Kaepernick for about two years, pretty much sabotaged his possibility with the Ravens. She posted an image of former Raven Ray Lewis embracing Bisciotti over a screen grab of a scene in “Django Unchained” where a house slave played by Samuel L. Jackson hugs his racist master, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
It seems very plausible that an NFL owner would not enjoy slave owner comparisons. It’s bad for business and a personal offense—hardly the best tactic for someone wanting another job.
Trump Doesn’t Have to Collude to Persuade
Everything with Kaepernick’s case for collusion relies on evidence, and simply pointing a finger at President Trump’s remarks, as the grievance does several times, won’t cut it either. The grievance makes big claims without providing evidence about collusion between Trump and owners, such as these: “The owners of Respondent NFL Teams have been quoted describing their communications with President Trump, who has been an organizing force in the collusion among team owners in their conduct towards Mr. Kaepernick and other NFL players. Owners have described the Trump Administration as causing paradigm shifts in their views toward NFL players.”
Let’s consider for a moment whether Trump’s remarks instilled apprehension in some owners. Even if so, that hardly proves teams gathered in conspiracy against Kaepernick. Let the absurdity of this sink in: Kaepernick is arguing the president of the United States is colluding against him, using comments made at a senator’s campaign rally as justification. The only accusation missing from Kaepernick’s filing is that Vladimir Putin was responsible for Kaepernick’s decision to opt out of a guaranteed contract with the 49ers worth $14.5 million.
Moreover, Kaepernick chose to take a political stand both in his protest at work and in commentary on his social media platforms. He planted himself firmly in political commentary, yet somehow questions why those in politics have discussed him. If a team believes political divisiveness may harm a locker room or bring unwanted attention (which signing Kaepernick inevitably would do), then why invite that mess over another quarterback?
Kaepernick Isn’t a Top-Shelf Quarterback, Either
In the grievance under factual background, Kaepernick’s lawyer claims, “Mr. Kaepernick continued to perform as a top tier quarterback while playing for the 49ers.” The grievance also asserts “Based on his consistently exceptional career performance, his age, and all other objective metrics, Mr. Kaepernick was an ideal candidate—and, in fact, the best-qualified candidate—to fill the vacant starting quarterback positions on many NFL teams, or at the very least, the numerous vacant backup positions…It is no longer a statistical anomaly but instead a statistical impossibility that Mr. Kaepernick has not been employed or permitted to try out for any NFL team since the initiation of his free agency period.”
This simply is not true. Kaepernick’s completion percentage in the last two seasons was ranked 32nd in the league, his total quarterback rating (QBR) 31st. He lost his starting job to Blaine Gabbert, a current backup quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals. At 29 years old and with statistics last season that were average at best, Kaepernick simply isn’t good enough to warrant media distraction.
Sure, the NFL has signed plenty of players with questionable pasts and moral indiscretions. But if the reward outweighs the risk on the football field, owners and general managers tend to take that gamble. In Kaepernick’s case, his mediocre numbers and struggles as a traditional pocket-passer quarterback simply haven’t been worth it.
Various teams did sign quarterbacks without any legal or moral issues but with less than impressive resumes, most as backups. Kaepernick’s grievance tries to argue this is proof of collusion: “NFL teams who ran offensive systems favorable to Mr. Kaepernick’s style of play instead employed retired quarterbacks or quarterbacks who had not played in a regular season game in years, and signed them to significant contracts while prohibiting Mr. Kaepernick from even trying out or interviewing for those jobs.”
That’s because teams in search of a backup are looking for someone to simply plug in behind their star quarterback, a.k.a. someone without a media circus in tow. It’s entirely within an owner’s prerogative to choose a player without baggage, a player who won’t detract from their starting QB and team cohesiveness. Even Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy publicly told reporters that, in his opinion, Kaepernick wasn’t “good enough” for the attention. So is a fellow NFL player now a part of owner collusion too? No, and therein lies another obstacle in this grievance.
Here’s the best part about the Kaepernick saga. News of his grievance filing broke the same day Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone. If Kaepernick had kept his primary focus on football rather than keeping himself in the public eye, perhaps his agent would have received a phone call from Green Bay. Instead, Kaepernick faces a difficult case to win and an even harder uphill battle if it goes to federal court.
Blame the owners all you want. Kaepernick’s worst enemy is himself.