I was wrong in thinking Colin Kaepernick would be signed by an NFL team sooner rather than later, and then later rather than not at all. Following last week’s decision by the Seahawks (one of, if not the most, tolerant NFL teams) to pass on even giving Kaepernick a tryout, for whatever the stated reason, it is clearer than ever to me that (1) Kaepernick is not going to be signed absent a perfect storm of circumstances, and (2) while any individual team’s actions might not meet the legal standard of collusion, there is certainly a punitive element at work here.
I knew that last year’s player/owner solidarity in response to the President’s remarks, with vivid images of owners kneeling and locking arms with players, would never last. The owners’ personal and business interests—and the braying they heard from fans, sponsors and networks—would soon lead to a push for players to “stick to sports,” evoking a tension that still lingers upon the mention of Kaepernick’s name. The Seahawks episode crystallizes what teams are thinking, in so many words: We will only employ you to be a football player if we know we are not employing you to be an activist.
Following the draft and the signing of undrafted players next weekend, an additional 20-30 quarterbacks will be added to NFL rosters, bringing the total number of QBs under contract to roughly 125, a group that will not include Kaepernick. And while I thought a quarterback injury last season could trigger a team signing him, I am not as hopeful this year. Absent Kaepernick abandoning his activism—and perhaps even if he does—teams are taking their business elsewhere. They want their players to stick to sports.
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Speaking of “sticking to sports,” we discussed this very subject on Friday at our annual Moorad Symposium at Villanova Law School (home to my day job), on a panel that included former players, activists and academics. Justin Tuck, the former New York Giant (and soon-to-be graduate of Wharton Business School), when asked about activism and the risk that players have, said this:
Protesting is supposed to make you uncomfortable. That’s how progress happens. If you’re comfortable nothing changes.
I obviously retired the year Kaepernick started kneeling. I’ve been asked many times: “Justin, if you were still in the league would you kneel?” Anything you do, you evaluate the risk/reward. For me, personally, in 2016, I was financially stable, so losing Nike, losing Subway, I didn’t really care if I was very passionate about that cause. So, the risk for me wasn’t as great as it might have been for other guys.
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Lingering effects of activism
I had thought, perhaps naively, that there would be at least one team that was sufficiently evolved on this matter to employ Kaepernick knowing what he brings outside the lines. I can no longer believe that to be true.
I always say, greater talent equals greater tolerance. Teams will tolerate disruption—character questions, drugs, alcohol, domestic violence and yes, activism—from certain players that they might not from others if the talent warrants; there are examples on every NFL roster. Without greater talent, however, tolerance diminishes significantly. This past weekend, the Eagles released cornerback Daryl Worley hours after an arrest despite having players on their roster with arrests in their recent background. Worley’s talent level did not warrant tolerance. Dez Bryant is another player whose talent/disruption factor was tolerated for many years when the talent was greater; the tolerance ran out as the talent has declined.
Similarly, the Eagles allow and even encourage players like Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long to engage in activism, as do the Seahawks with Doug Baldwin. The Seahawks traded Michael Bennett, a vocal proponent of social change but also a 32-year-old player who might no longer be as dominant as he once was, and opted out on Kaepernick. Last summer, the Eagles released a player who had kneeled during the anthem before a preseason game (defensive back Ron Brooks), though Brooks was likely not in the team's plans anyway.
One question to ask, though, is whether players who clearly have career security now will suffer later in their careers due to their activism? This question brings us to the case of Eric Reid who, like his former teammate Kaepernick, was a productive player who now appears unemployable.
While hundreds of players have found homes in free agency, Reid waits and watches. His only visit was with the Bengals, who reportedly questioned him about continuing anthem protests. Although evaluating talent is not my lane, it is hard to believe Reid is still on the street due to his ability alone. Like Kaepernick, he is suffering the consequences of his protest.
• ERIC REID IS STILL A FREE AGENT; HE SHOULDN’T BE: If the safety is unsigned because of protests during the anthem, NFL teams are making an enormous mistake.
More punitive than collusive
The collusion grievance filed by Kaepernick against the NFL—one that would certainly disappear if he were to be signed—requires evidence of concerted action between two or more teams to pass on signing him. My sense is that if there were that concerted action (a text, email or other communication between teams) we certainly would have seen or heard about it by now. An individual team testifying that they didn’t want the disruption that Kaepernick would bring or even that they didn’t want an activist, only an athlete, might be harsh but does not amount to collusion.
Though not collusive, it is certainly punitive. And the fact that teams are individually shunning him rather than doing so in concert makes the punitive nature of it even more stark.
NFL teams are punishing Kaepernick for his activism and for not “sticking to sports.” After this latest episode with the Seahawks, it is clear that the talent/activism equation of Colin Kaepernick has made him unemployable.
Dallas does Dez wrong
The timing of Dez Bryant’s release, three-and-a-half months after the Cowboys’ last game and a month into free agency, is especially harsh. He now enters a soft marketplace where teams have already answered their wide receiver needs or are focusing on the draft to do so. Bryant’s next contract that will be a far cry from the one just terminated.
Speaking of that contract, it is the latest example of NFL contracts being more “suggestions” than contracts. Bryant now watches $25 million of written future contract value turn to dust. His agent could have forced the Cowboys into an earlier decision by negotiating roster bonuses in March, but agents and players regularly sacrifice contract structure for the lure of big numbers, even if illusory. Even this contract, signed in July 2015 when Bryant had great leverage at the franchise-tag deadline, turned out to be a mirage.
The business of football always wins…
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