If there’s one mantra the NFL seems to believe when it comes to scandal, it’s that all things shall pass. Beset by many major controversies over the past decade, from a cover-up of the consequences of head trauma to rampant abuse of painkillers and leniency on domestic violence, the league has largely been right that things can be smoothed over in time.
One major exception is the blackballing of former San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick, who started a massive controversy when he kneeled during the national anthem of a 2016 preseason game to draw awareness to racial and social injustices in the U.S. Kaepernick, who worked out for several NFL teams in Atlanta on Saturday, opted out of his 49ers contract in 2017 and hasn’t found work in the league since.
The NFL has launched a host of social justice initiatives to deflect from the idea that it is against Kaepernick’s message. Among them is a partnership the league announced with Roc Nation, the entertainment company launched by rapper Jay-Z, to further efforts to foster education and criminal justice reform. The partnership also meant that Roc Nation would play a role in selecting musical artists to perform at key NFL events throughout the year, including the Super Bowl.
That last item is especially important, as the NFL has had difficulty in recent years landing a significant act for the Super Bowl halftime show, which has long been a marquee platform not only for the league but also the music industry at large. Rihanna infamously turned down an offer from the NFL to perform at last season’s Super Bowl.
Landing pop artists isn’t everything, of course. The NFL knows the exclusion of Kaepernick continues to be a popular talking point from those inclined to criticize the league, and for good reason. With a younger generation highly committed to social justice causes, the NFL risks alienating fans for decades if the narrative solidifies that the league cast Kaepernick aside because he inspired players around the league, and the entire sports landscape, to use their platform to protest societal ills like police brutality.
That the NFL had to reach a financial settlement in February with Kaepernick and former teammate Eric Reid in a collusion case only makes the league seem more culpable. Some critics of Reid and Kaepernick gloated when it was reported that the settlement ended up being under $10 million, perhaps less than what some supporters of the two had hoped. But the fact that there was a settlement at all is damning to the NFL all the same. It demonstrates a degree of fault and proves, whatever the motives, league ownership was trying to suppress two players who are worthy of being employed.
The career of Reid, who also kneeled in protest during national anthems, has continued just fine; after leaving the 49ers, he has started at safety with the Panthers for two seasons. Kaepernick, however, can’t find an NFL job. It has become common practice over the past few years for a chorus of questioning voices to rise up and wonder whether the 32-year-old would get a call when a QB goes down with an injury.
There were brief rumblings about the Seahawks giving him a shot in 2018, but that never materialized. Otherwise, it has been silence and inaction. So it’s little wonder that the NFL abruptly and unilaterally decided to announce the Saturday workout for Kaepernick in Atlanta. There was plenty to question at the outset. Why now? Why was the workout scheduled on a Saturday, when few key representatives from teams can attend due to preparation for games the next day? Why a stubborn insistence that the workout, to be held at the Falcons’ facility, be closed?
What’s more, there’s the matter of the liability waiver the NFL was asking Kaepernick to sign before the workout. Not only did it contain language protecting the league from any injury he might suffer, which is understandable, but it also protected the league from any further employment claims that could come up after the grievance was resolved in February. Rightfully, Kaepernick wanted no part of this NFL process, so he held an unsanctioned workout at a local high school instead.
By all indications, Kaepernick’s performance that he organized before representatives of eight teams went well. Scouts marveled at the state of his arm strength, proclaiming it as good as when he came out of college.
On Sunday night, a report indicated that Kaepernick’s had not received a contract offer or an invite for a private workout. Kaepernick’s agent, Jeff Nalley, told ESPN that league sources seemed to suggest that the proposed NFL workout was more about getting signed for the 2020 season. If that’s so, he reasonably countered, why not have it during the December owners meetings? Nalley did suggest rescheduling it closer to the NFL Draft next spring, but Kaepernick shut that down, saying he didn’t want to take focus away from prospects, a wise decision.
In the two days since the workout, Jay-Z reportedly was upset with Kaepernick for not accepting all of the NFL’s demands and turning the workout into “a publicity stunt.” If anything, this reveals how much the rapper and mogul is in the pockets of the NFL, as it was the league that made all these ironclad demands when any of its teams could have worked out Kaepernick at any time over the past few years but chose not to. What’s more, there’s no reason for Kaepernick to cave to the league’s curious demands of no media and a bizarre waiver that exculpates it from further legal liability.
It also is odd that some NFL media have been at least mildly critical of Kaepernick, if not downright scolding.