For all the talk of college students’ intransigence in the opinion pages of our nation’s major newspapers, the longest and highest profile deplatforming in America is still ongoing and we have heard nary a peep on that front. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that the perpetrators of this deplatforming are billionaires, and not easy targets like kids, but I digress…
I’ll begin this column by isolating my readers into two camps: those who believe that Colin Kaepernick is a good enough football player to earn a contract in the NFL, and those who don’t. Next, I’d like to speak to just the latter, and how your belief is simply just wrong. While it does reflect the NFL’s actions last year—as no one gave Kaepernick a job—a new report by uber-NFL insider Mike Florio illuminates the reasons why Kaepernick went jobless in 2017. It wasn’t because of anything that had to do with his football talent. Per ProFootballTalk:
Remember when quarterback Colin Kaepernick initially went unsigned after becoming a free agent in March 2017? Remember the false and overstated concerns that were being pushed to justify the position that he was unemployed for football reasons? Remember when some said that was all a bunch of crap?
As it turns out, it was.
If the subtle-on-the-surface shift that happened last July, when Kaepernick’s status went from being about only football to being about non-football considerations, wasn’t enough to prove that the “all about football” narrative amounted to nonsense, the ongoing collusion case is establishing that multiple teams viewed Kaepernick as a starting NFL quarterback in 2017, and that they continue to view him that way. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, internal franchise documents generated as part of the free-agency evaluation process and testimony from witnesses harvested via depositions in the collusion litigation has established that teams viewed Kaepernick as being good enough not simply to be employed by an NFL team, but to be a starting quarterback for an NFL team.
At the beginning of the season, I wrote about how there’s no possible football logic one can arrive at which concludes that the quarterback-needy NFL did not need a quarterback who was one play away from championship six years ago; a quarterback who has more postseason experience than every quarterback to become available since Peyton Manning; and a quarterback who had the second-best touchdown to interception ratio in the NFL his last season.
That logic still holds. Quarterback play didn’t get appreciably better this last year—as represented by the two largest contracts given out to quarterbacks this offseason. Case Keenum, who has been buried on the bench for most of his career, received $18 million per year from Denver, and the aggressively mediocre Kirk Cousins secured the first fully guaranteed NFL contract in history at $30 million per year from Minnesota—who employed Keenum last season.
If salary equals talent, then Kirk Cousins is better than Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but you don’t even need to watch football to know that’s poppycock. The mega-contract given to Cousins reflects the staggering level of demand amongst NFL teams for base-level competency at quarterback. Case Keenum started in just 24 of his first 64 career games, but after playing very well in 14 games for the Vikings last year, Denver rewarded him with the 19th richest contract in all of football for 2018.
Frankly, it’s not even up for debate that the NFL is desperate for adequate quarterback play. It’s one of the central storylines of modern football. If you believe that Kaepernick isn’t good enough to play in the NFL, you either don’t watch football or don’t understand it. Matt Moore hadn’t been a starting quarterback since the Bush administration, but an injury pushed him into the lineup for Miami, and he wasn’t even the worst quarterback in the 2017 playoffs. The exhausted trope about how teams couldn’t bring in Kaepernick at the end of camp because he couldn’t memorize the playbook AND the one about how teams would need to change their offense for a “running” quarterback was completely blown out of the water when Indianapolis traded for a worse version of Kaepernick (Jacoby Brisset) the week before the season began, and started him nearly all year.
All but six of the 25 highest paid players in next year’s NFL are quarterbacks. This is a quarterback-driven league where not having one means certain football death, as this Broncos fan learned yet again this past season. I have no clue if Case Keenum is going to be good next year or if he’ll turn back into a pumpkin. I do know that even if he reverts back into a pumpkin, it’ll be better than the raging tire fire that Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler set on the field last year.
That said, me the football fan believes that anyone who would rather devote $18 million to the enigma that is Case Keenum, instead of the league minimum (about $800k) to Colin Kaepernick, should be banished from ever opining on football again. And this is where my homerism can actually be useful as something more than a Bill Simmons cosplay, because the center of Kaepernick’s collusion argument may rest on my beloved Denver Broncos.
The Center of Kaepernick’s Collusion Argument
Despite how obvious it is that Kaepernick was blackballed due to his political beliefs—which is a violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (yay unions!)—it’s far less certain that he will win his case against the NFL. The NFL’s bylaws are vague on this topic and proving something like collusion beyond a shadow of a doubt is a bit of a catch-22 anyway. It’s just an incredibly high legal bar to clear, as Kevin Siefert of ESPN wrote when Kaepernick filed the grievance last October:
Reasonable people can debate Kaepernick’s skill and ability level. But it would be impossible to rank him below the 89 quarterbacks on NFL rosters as of last Friday. There is no question that he is a better quarterback than some who have jobs, and perhaps some who have starting jobs as well.
But that fact — and yes, I’m comfortable calling it a fact — doesn’t seem to satisfy the burden of proof required by the CBA. It seems clear that all 32 teams have reached the same conclusion on Kaepernick, if for different reasons. If that’s the result of a coordinated league effort, however, we haven’t seen the evidence required for an arbitrator to agree.
To be clear, none of this is going to accelerate Kaepernick’s return to the NFL. Even if he wins this grievance, the CBA doesn’t require a team to give him a job. Instead, it spells out a process for awarding compensatory damages, at a value to be determined by the arbitrator. The real damage to the NFL could be an exposure of its inner workings via public discovery.
If Kaepernick has internal franchise documents which prove he was viewed as a starting-caliber quarterback, then that significantly boosts his case which is backed up by the actions of the 2016 defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos. Let me take you back to a simpler era when we (I) were (was) happy. The world was less Trumpian, tide pods were just tide pods, and Von Miller was ripping footballs out of Cam Newton’s hands. It was a glorious time to be alive.
Because all good things must come to an end, Peyton Manning retired after winning Super Bowl 50, and entering the 2016 season, the Denver Broncos needed to replace a legend. Their first choice was Brock Osweiler, who had played competently in a few starts down the stretch while subbing for an injured Manning. However, disputes over money eventually led to him signing in Houston, which moved the Broncos towards plan B. Per The Denver Post on July 7, 2016:
The football rests in Colin Kaepernick’s hands.
The Broncos made a push to acquire the San Francisco quarterback as general manager John Elway met with Kaepernick at his Denver home Thursday about restructuring his contract, an NFL source confirmed.
The meeting came on the day Kaepernick’s $11.9 million salary for this season became guaranteed, which eliminated the possibility San Francisco would release him; he carries a $15.9 million cap hit for next season, with about $19.3 million in dead money. For Kaepernick to become a Bronco he must restructure his contract or take a paycut given Denver’s minimal salary cap space. It is considered the biggest hurdle to a deal with a growing belief the teams can reach an accord on draft pick compensation.
The NFL’s defending Super Bowl Champions had their demigod/Vice President of Football Operations, John Elway, host Colin Kaepernick at his home in order to persuade him to play for the Broncos, but the deal fell apart at the last minute over money. One year later, with the Broncos still desperate for a good quarterback, they did not turn towards Kaepernick, and set fire to their season with two youngsters who had never looked like starting-caliber quarterbacks (and they added Brock Osweiler to this toxic cocktail after he flamed out in Houston—the NFL bad QB carousel is never not entertaining).
This is the essence of Kaepernick’s collusion case. It’s unclear how persuasive it is legally, but the events of the past make the NFL’s interest in his football services undeniable. Some simple logic:
If the Broncos wanted Kaepernick at a reduced salary in 2016, and Kaepernick stated that he was willing to play for the veteran’s minimum in 2017—which is significantly less than what the Broncos wanted to pay him in 2016—why didn’t Denver pursue him? Why did they choose to give $18 million to Case Keenum this year when Kaepernick is available for relative peanuts? The Broncos are far from the only team who you can ask difficult questions of, but they are unique in that they were the last team to make a serious push to acquire Colin Kaepernick.
Why didn’t the Colts go after Kaepernick to save their season after Andrew Luck got hurt? Or the Ravens with Joe Flacco? Or the Dolphins with Ryan Tannehill? Or the Texans with Deshaun Watson? Or, or, or…there are so many NFL teams that could have used Colin Kaepernick’s services, but instead of trying to win, they let the owners’ political beliefs get in the way of their product, providing a prominent example of how the league’s commitment to meritocracy is a sham.
Two More Kaepernick Concerns That Are Bunk
I’ll end where I began: speaking to the anti-Kaepernick crowd. I’m not here to moralize about what is and isn’t a political act during the forced singing of a political anthem, but I want to cut off the two other major concerns around Kaepernick and his ilk that have been wholly repudiated by reality.
His Protest Is A Distraction
This is somewhat true, but in the same way that Tim Tebow was a distraction thanks to the media frenzy that surrounded his only year as a starter in the NFL. You can’t control what ESPN and the like focus on, and Kaepernick shouldn’t be blamed because we live in an era where TV news prefers sensationalism to journalism. Now, the idea that his activism is a distraction to his teammates is difficult to square given that the Philadelphia Eagles just won a Super Bowl while earning the title of “Wokest Team.”
Malcolm Jenkins is one of the best defensive players in football. The Eagles all-pro defense bestowed the captaincy upon him, and he has been protesting during the national anthem as long as Kaepernick. Jenkins’ activism would be depicted as a far bigger “distraction” if he wasn’t wreaking havoc every Sunday. Now, Kaepernick is nowhere near as good of a quarterback as Jenkins is a safety, but he would be a dramatic upgrade on roughly a third of teams in the NFL. Had the Texans signed Kaepernick when their stud rookie got hurt, they may have made the playoffs in the decidedly mediocre AFC South, instead of finishing with the fourth-worst record in football. Bad quarterbacks are a far bigger “distraction” than quarterbacks who protest.
His Protests Cost the League Money
To those who accept that Kaepernick’s football talent qualifies him for the league, yet agree with the owners’ stance, the retreat is to the classic line: “the NFL is a private business, they can hire whomever they want.” True, but the NFL isn’t just any private business.
It’s a “private business” which is granted monopoly protection by the Major League Sports Community Protection Act of 1982. It’s a “private business” which regularly demands that local states and cities pay hundreds of millions of dollars to build new stadiums. It’s a “private business” that, in the most extreme cases, moves franchises like the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles while still under a taxpayer-funded lease in St. Louis, all in order to make billionaires like Stan Kroenke more money. The NFL simply could not exist in its current iteration without the protection of the United States Congress or by suckling at the teat of taxpayer dollars. Plus, the NFL isn’t losing money.
Yes, TV ratings are on the decline—but that is reflective of the TV industry as a whole. With people cutting cable, ratings are down across the board. Live sports (and award shows) are still the only goldmine remaining for advertisers, and the NFL is gobbling up more and more money on that end. In 2016, the NFL increased the cash they split amongst the teams by ten percent (ironically, the NFL is governed by a communist-style economic system that shares revenue with all 32 teams equally, combined with a hard salary cap which ensures that every team spends roughly the same amount of money).
Last year, the NFL made $14 billion. Sponsorship revenue was up six percent. The Carolina Panthers just sold for a whopping $2.3 billion, easily eclipsing Steve Ballmer’s $1 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers for the most expensive sports franchise sale in American history. Anyone who thinks that the NFL is in serious financial peril isn’t paying attention, and that apparently includes some NFL owners.
Last month, the New York Times obtained leaked audio from the NFL’s meetings with the players union, and it illuminated why the NFL is in disarray right now. Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula emerged as the poster child for the owners’ childish panic over the protests, saying “All Donald needs to do is to start to do this again. We need some kind of immediate plan because of what’s going on in society. All of us now, we need to put a Band-Aid on what’s going on in the country.”
Yesterday, word leaked that the NFL is considering “leaving it up to home team on whether teams come out for the anthem; if teams do come out for the anthem, potential that teams could be assessed 15-yard penalties for kneeling.” This moronic enforcement of political beliefs inside of an apolitical game is emblematic of the emaciated ideology held dear by at least a controlling number of NFL owners. Of course, this wasn’t the final solution the owners landed on, as the policy they are instituting is “if players are on sideline, will stand. But players may choose to stay in the locker room if they prefer not to stand.” NFL reporter Benjamin Allbright summed up the stupidity behind this decision on Twitter.
Revenues are increasing, the game is as popular as it has ever been, sports gambling was just legalized (which will benefit football more than any other sport) and on the whole, the rest of America’s sports leagues would kill to have the NFL’s problems. Instead, the NFL is governed by a collection of billionaires who refuse to play by anyone’s rules other than their own, which seemingly change depending on their mood. Colin Kaepernick is the nail in the coffin proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only coherent brand the NFL has is hypocrisy.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.