The settlement between the NFL and its player-antagonists Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid was remarkable on several counts, not the least of which was the underappreciated fact that it was tie. As we all know, Americans don’t do anti-climaxes well; our lives are pathetically full of them, so please don’t inject them into sports or the conclusion of The Sopranos.
Besides, the mutual agreement to not disclose terms and conditions of the settlement is going to drive bats the football world, lingering on past all of our days, haunting us like the shadowy figures on the grassy knoll in Dallas.
A draw invites all of us to pick winners and losers (as well as both or none) while being safe in the knowledge that we won’t be proven wrong, yet nevertheless likely to sound stupid to the guy on next stool.
For sure, it forever makes opaque the Kaepernick football narrative.
Think about this: The precious career time he lost may well have put him, at 31, beyond the point of top-flight return, yet he’s unlikely to be able to prove otherwise because no club wants to be the village idiot that, by having him succeed, proves Kaepernick’s point: The whole tribe is full of village idiots for denying him a job based on social politics.
The Seahawks may be the one team that has the teensiest standing to do so, because at least they had planned to give him a workout in April 2017. Then came the story that the workout was nixed after Kaepernick, according to unnamed sources, declined to answer the Seahawks’ question of whether he would continue to protest during the anthem.
The Seahawks never confirmed the story. But by September, after President Trump riled the political and sports worlds by denigrating the protesting players and the NFL for indulging them, coach Pete Carroll put out a rare statement that firmly backed the rights and beliefs of Kaepernick and other racial-injustice protesters:
We stand for love and justice and civility. We stand for our players and their constitutional rights, just as we stand for equality for all people. We stand against divisiveness and hate and dehumanization.
We are in the midst of a tremendously challenging time, a time longing for healing. Change needs to happen; we will stand for change. May we all have the courage to take a stand for our beliefs while not diminishing the rights of others, as this is the beating heart of our democracy. As a team, we are united in a mission to bring people together to help create positive change. We can no longer remain silent.
If it the two episodes seemed to you like the Seahawks wanted it both ways, you would be right. All teams did, desperate to appease their majority-black labor force and not offend the many white conservatives in the stands and in the TV audience.
In October, Kaepernick filed the collusion grievance against the NFL, alleging he had been denied employment as a result of his stance. Among the many deposed in the case were Carroll, general manager John Schneider and owner Paul Allen.
We’ll never know whether the Seahawks’ curiosity about Kaepernick waned on its own or because of pressure brought from within the NFL. But if I were Kaepernick’s lawyer, I know where I would have started with questions.
Easy as it is to mock the NFL’s clumsiness in these situations, I would be surprised if there were paper, digital, audio or video trails about blacklisting Kaepernick. As with any company, the senior people know all the codes, tropes and traps. No need to write or speak of sacred cows or toxic stews.
Yet the powers nevertheless sensed risk; the league previously had lost its attempt at a summary judgment, indicating the arbitrator felt some evidence was there to continue the grievance hearing.
If, for example, the Seahawks were willing to have tested Kaepernick’s football skills, then, at the behest of a league employee, abruptly set a non-football pre-condition before the test, the episode would have established collusion by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and be seen as an act of racism by players and their supporters.
Whatever the evidence, it seems highly likely that the league chose the far lesser evil of reimbursing Kaepernick for past and future income losses, and paying more dearly for his silence. That way, the league admits no wrong-doing, just as it did with the concussion settlement. It threw almost $1 billion at the retired players without having to admit responsibility for hiding the known effects of traumatic brain injury from football collisions.
A billion dollars seems like a lot. But divided by 32 teams and paid out over years for an industry that generates about $15 billion in annual revenues, no, it isn’t. So settling with Kaepernick is, for the NFL, little more than a rounding error.
The legal conclusion to this saga does not bring an end to the NFL’s uncomfortable place in the country’s fractured political life. I have a theoretical for the owners.
What if a middle-of-the-road NFL quarterback like, say, Joe Flacco (career QB rating 84, Kaepernick 89), decided that he would kneel for the national anthem as a protest against those attempting to stop a border wall with Mexico?
What if Flacco sincerely believed that the threat to the welfare and security of the U.S. was so urgent that he would risk his career to exploit the pulpit inevitably granted to the pre-eminent position in America’s most popular game?
I realize the analogy is imperfect: Racism is a 400-year tradition in the U.S., whereas the wall is a fever dream of a desperate president. Nevertheless, Flacco would appear to be advocating a controversial position (“Not my America!”) held by a minority of fans (according to all contemporary polls), one that the majority would find contemptible.
Would the NFL feel threatened enough by Flacco’s politics to conspire to keep him out of the NFL? Or would they simply agree with him, since he looked and sounded like most of them?
Maybe they just invented a fresh option: Buy him out with more money than if he kept playing.