It started the instant the NFL announced that it would set up a special tryout for former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It was a “set-up,” “a trap,” “a PR stunt,” “a win-win for the NFL” (the implication being a lose-lose for Kaepernick) and so on.
Almost none of the supposed learned experts on the NFL’s motives in reaching out to the blackballed quarterback uttered the truth. Kaepernick won. In fact, the tryout was the culmination of an almost unbroken string of Kaepernick wins since he got the boot from the NFL.
Here’s the checklist of his dizzying string of wins. He rammed the issue of racial injustice and police abuse on the table of professional and amateur sport in America. He got dozens of NFL players to take a brief stand on the playing field against injustice. He forced NFL owners to at least acknowledge that racial injustice was a fact of life without and even within their sport.
Kaepernick sent President Donald Trump into apoplectic rage about his defiant stand, and in the process got the NFL owners and players for a brief moment to hit back at Trump for his verbal taunt of the league. He got the NFL Commissioner’s office to request that he attend an NFL owners meeting and the NFL Players Association to urge him to attend the meeting.
He got a prime NFL backer, Nike, to jump on board his bandwagon, and shell out lots of cash for his endorsement, which cropped up in a Super Bowl Nike TV ad that won high praise for excellence. Even when it seemed he was permanently damaged goods in the NFL, he was still never far from the minds of NFL owners and general managers with endless speculation that he could and should replace some teams injured or grossly underperforming quarterbacks.
Then there was the settlement. No one other than the NFL and Kaepernick really knows what the two sides agreed on. But the details are less important than that the NFL felt that they had to do something about him since the shadow he cast over the NFL wasn’t going away.
To further underscore that, the NFL owners, in a much-ballyhooed move, corralled rap entrepreneur Jay Z to work with the league on unspecified promotional and social justice issues presumably committing substantial dollars to whatever initiatives they come up with. In fact, when the Kaepernick controversy exploded in the NFL’s face, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, presumably speaking on behalf of many, if not most, of owners has talked a good game about the League getting more involved in “social change issues” that impact on poor, minority communities.
Goodell has met with some of the more outspoken NFL players about their concerns about combatting police abuse, mass incarceration and racial injustices. These are the very things that Kaepernick sat, took a knee, tweeted about, spent his own money on, and ultimately got kicked out of the league for addressing.
If Kaepermick ever did get an audience with the owners he almost certainly would talk about these causes and press the owners to put their money, time, energy and behemoth clout behind support of them. The betting odds are that some of the owners would increase their efforts to do a few of these things.
It wouldn’t take much for NFL teams to pump a few more dollars into education, job training programs, and mentoring programs for at-risk youth, and issue a statement here and there about police abuse. These actions are the cheap and easy way for the NFL to show concern.
In the end, though, Kaepernick played his part masterfully. He said almost nothing publicly about any of this. He let the sports jocks, NFL flacks, present and former players, and legions of fans endlessly chatter away about him, his fate and the issues he raised.
The NFL’s offer of a tryout, then, can’t be separated from the Kaepernick victory string. He has teased NFL teams with periodic sounding about wanting to play again complete with his workout and training videos. However, if he was really just the out-of-sight, out-of-mind has-been malcontent that some within and without the NFL have expended colossal effort to depict him as, there would not have been a second of thought given to a tryout for him.
The risk of re-stirring the pot of controversy about him would have been too great. Besides who really would have cared anyway?
More than a dozen team representatives attended Kaepernick’s workout. Whether any NFL team picks him up or not is less important than that three years after he was kicked out of the league, he is still very much a presence in the league. The tryout is the proof that Kaepernick won.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Kaepernick” (Amazon Kindle). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.