First off, the NFL is clearly blackballing Colin Kaepernick over his protest against inequality and racism. This isn’t just me, a lifelong die-hard football fan saying this, but one of the most well-connected reporters in the NFL. Per ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio back in May:
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.
Now, this case has entered a new phase that is potentially more damaging to the NFL in not only the court of public opinion, but actual courts of law. Per the New York Times:
In a major blow to the N.F.L., an arbitrator has ruled that Colin Kaepernick’s collusion case can proceed because he has produced sufficient evidence that the league and its owners colluded to keep him off the field.
The ruling by Stephen B. Burbank, an arbitrator who was appointed by the league and the N.F.L. Players Association, said lawyers for Kaepernick, a free-agent quarterback, had unearthed enough information in the past year for the case to proceed to a full hearing. After months of depositions and document searches, the lawyers will be able to question league officials, owners and others in a trial-like format.
This ruling extends beyond Kaepernick. Before the beginning of last season, I laid out the case for why there is no good football reason for Colin Kaepernick to remain unemployed. Kaepernick is not the star that he was when his 49ers fell one play short of a championship six years ago, but he is undoubtedly at worst, a serviceable backup in a league bereft of quarterback depth. For anyone who pays attention to football, it’s a laughable assertion that Kaepernick’s football skills haven’t earned him a spot on an NFL roster. However, there is an even more egregious example in the case of Eric Reid (pictured next to Kaepernick in the photo up top), who joined Kaepernick in his protest and is also unemployed.
Reid is a better safety than Kaepernick is a quarterback, and Kaepernick is a pretty solid QB. Reid made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, and maintained a high level of play over the next four years. This image from NFL analyst Cian Fahey is a great example of how absurd it is that Eric Reid does not currently have a job.
Tre Boston was one of the better safeties in the NFL last year, and he was unable to find a contract commensurate with his ability. Tyrann Matheiu exploded on to the scene—making an all-pro team in his third season—and he was also unable to find a long-term deal in line with what players of his caliber typically make. In an interview with Robert Mays of The Ringer, Tre Boston insinuated that the market to depress safety salaries was directly tied to the blackballing of Eric Reid, because if Reid isn't even getting signed, it's difficult to justify paying safeties just as good or perhaps even worse than him. Per Mays:
Initially, Boston was baffled when few teams came calling with the caliber of contract offer he expected. Soon, he developed a theory of his own. “Nobody could find a football reason why it was happening,” Boston says, “but people know why.” Boston doesn't mention Eric Reid by name, but as he explains his reasoning, the reference is unmistakable.
Reid was the first member of the 49ers to join Colin Kaepernick in taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 as a way to protest racial and social injustice in the United States. After interest in Reid as a free agent didn't materialize this March, the former LSU standout filed a collusion grievance against the NFL that mirrored Kaepernick's case against the league. Onlookers have linked Reid's continued unemployment to his connection to Kaepernick, and Boston suggests the effect of Reid's apparent blackballing is more wide-ranging than it may appear. “People have to think beyond just one person,” Boston says. “How are you going to look at a whole market if you sign everybody and one person is left? You don't put yourself in that predicament. You devalue the whole market.”
In Boston's eyes, NFL teams are trying to cover themselves for not going after Reid. “Last year, [there were] three highly paid safeties,” Boston says, alluding to [Eric] Berry, [Kam] Chancellor, and Reshad Jones. “It was the highest our market has ever been. And then it just flops this year. It's the first year any top-five group of free agents has waited into training camp. And a week into camp two of the top five sign. It's just obvious [what the reasoning is]. I don't understand why the questions are even there.”
There are legitimate problems in Kaepernick's game to nitpick. His accuracy has never been great, and it has worsened since his breakout season a half-decade ago. Being accurate is perhaps the most important trait in an NFL quarterback, and it is becoming much more so as the league tilts the rules to favor offenses. It's not unreasonable to suggest that he's not worthy of a starting spot, but it's absurd to say that Kaepernick isn't better than the litany of also-rans and nobodies holding clipboards on the sidelines every Sunday. That said, there is quite literally no good reason behind Reid's disappearance from the NFL. If Kaepernick is getting blackballed, Reid certainly is too.
Part of the result of the NFL tilting the rules towards offense is devaluing physical defensive players. Those who can make plays on the ball and cover athletic players in space are becoming more valuable by the day, and that is the exact description of Eric Reid's skillset. Not to mention, Reid is still very much in his prime at age 26. Any self-professed football guy who thinks that Eric Reid isn't an NFL-caliber safety knows absolutely nothing about football, and they are simply parroting the talking points coming out of moronic right-wing media.
Which is why Kaepernick's collusion case moving forward to a full hearing is so damaging for the NFL. Kaepernick may not be a starting-caliber quarterback, but if a judge finds that the league did blackball him, then Reid's case should be a shoo-in. It also doesn't help the NFL's case that the NFL's resident Donald Trump, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, admitted in a sworn deposition that Trump's racist salvos had an effect on the NFL's anthem policies.
We have a league which more than any other in America, claims to be run entirely by meritocracy, despite blackballing a wholly competent quarterback and a legitimately good safety (two positions integral to the success of modern football), and its most famed owner admitted that politics had something to do with how they viewed these protests. As the famed NFL segment goes, c'mon man.
The NFL is lucky that it's a cash-printing machine, because it has proven over the last near-decade that it is run by some of the most incompetent billionaire buffoons in America. This Kaepernick case is bad news for them either way, because even if the NFL wins the case, more information about their back-room dealing will be brought to light thanks to this new ruling.
The NFL desperately wants this “anthem issue” to go away. The league positions themselves as apolitical in American society, then turns around and make gobs of money off our hyper-nationalism. Owners complain about players bringing politics on to the field while simultaneously signing agreements with our political system to waste taxpayer dollars on over-the-top military displays usually reserved for tinpot dictatorships.
Notice that even though the NBA has a longstanding policy enforcing players to stand for the national anthem, they do not have this same issue. Perhaps it's because NBA players feel that they're allowed to make their voices heard elsewhere, while NFL owners want to use the players as silent pawns in their bankrupt political ideology. There is one way the NFL rids itself of this controversy (with its players, Trump and the rest of the Republican Party has proven that so long as the NFL's workforce is predominantly black, they will continue to use them as a wedge issue with the fans who refuse to understand what Kaepernick and his cohorts are protesting), and it's by being honest with their players about what's really going on.
Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills said he will continue to protest until Kaepernick and Reid get a fair shake.
As a lifelong football fan, I can tell you that I have become less of an NFL fan over the past few years, and the owners are a central reason why. Despite my unadulterated love for the game of football, I feel like I am negatively contributing to society by supporting a league run by de facto racists who spend millions of dollars downplaying the serious brain damage caused by their sport. To top it off, admitted domestic abusers like Adam “Pacman” Jones get seemingly infinite second-chances so long as they are able to play (with my beloved Denver Broncos signing him just before this season began), while better players like Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid who demonstrate courage while standing up for their convictions in order to make a positive impact on society are excommunicated without ever getting a second chance. The way front offices across the NFL conduct themselves is literally unconscionable.
I don’t know where my breaking point is, but five years ago it would have been unfathomable to me that I would stop watching football. Now, given how the NFL conducts itself both on and off the field (seriously, how can this joke of a league still not know what the hell a catch is?????) it almost seems just like a matter of time until the NFL loses die-hard football fans like me altogether.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.