While football fans and labor experts ponder whether Colin Kaepernick found a smoking gun to bolster his collusion case against the National Football League, the still-unemployed quarterback is pointing to a central figure in the case: President Trump.
Trump, according to the text of Kaepernick's grievance complaint, "has been an organizing force" in the joint decision by the league's 32 owners to deny the quarterback even a tryout. "Owners have described the Trump administration as causing paradigm shifts in their views toward NFL players." The complaint was originally made public by ABC News.
Kaepernick may have a point, since Trump injected himself personally into the case and openly denigrated NFL players who supported Kaepernick. Whether that's enough to persuade a neutral arbitrator, however, remains an open question.
Kaepernick, 29, is the former star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who started a movement, and a furor, last year by refusing to stand for the pre-game playing of the national anthem. He described his act as a protest against the shooting of black citizens by police officers who were receiving official absolution for their actions. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way," he said. "There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
Kaepernick opted out of his 49ers contract before the 2017 season, becoming a free agent. Since then he hasn't even been permitted to try out for any NFL team, according to the grievance. Meanwhile, numerous NFL teams have tried out gangs of retreads-of-the-month to fill holes in their rosters.
The quarterback's solo protest turned into a mass movement this season, as squads of NFL players took a knee during the pre-game anthem or remained in the locker room, occasionally joined by their owners. That prompted Trump, who never seems to let an opportunity for crassness to pass unremarked, to stick his oar in.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired,'" Trump said at a Sept. 22 rally in Alabama. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pushed back with an anodyne objection, Trump goaded him on Twitter for "trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country."
Kaepernick's grievance asserts that Trump did much more, however. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence "have posted tweets and engaged in various public relations stunts designed to retaliate against Mr. Kaepernick and other players," it states. The reference plainly includes Pence's transparently ostentatious walkout from a game between the Indianapolis Colts and 49ers at which several players declined to stand.
The grievance observes that several owners "have been quoted describing their communications with President Trump, who had been an organizing force in the collusion." This includes Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the subject of a Trump tweet on Sept. 27. "Spoke to Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys yesterday," it read. "Players will stand for Country!"
Indeed, on Oct. 8, Jones announced that Cowboys who failed to stand for the anthem would be benched. He cited a (nonexistent) NFL rule requiring that players stand. Jones, according to ESPN, also had informed his fellow owners that he had spoken with Trump repeatedly by phone, and reported that Trump "had no intention of backing down from his criticism of the NFL and its players," in ESPN's words. Trump is known to be friendly with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Still, Trump's self-injection into the Kaepernick affair began well after the league-wide cold shoulder against the quarterback became evident through what the grievance describes as "unusual and bizarre behavior" by the teams. "It is no longer a statistical anomaly but instead a statistical impossibility that Mr. Kaepernick has not been employed or permitted to try out for any NFL team since the initiation of his free agency period."
"Multiple NFL head coaches and general managers stated that they wanted to sign Mr. Kaepernick, only to mysteriously go silent with no explanation. … NFL teams who ran offensive systems favorable to Mr. Kaepernick's style of play instead employed retired quarterbacks or quarterbacks who had not played in a regular season game in years … while prohibiting Mr. Kaepernick from even trying out or interviewing for those jobs."
Could Trump really be responsible for the NFL's alleged collusion against Kaepernick, if it began in the spring, as the grievance alleges? Not entirely; but the player alleges that the collusion has been ongoing. Teams scour for replacement players all season long — the Green Bay Packers, for example, need some sort of replacement for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who got knocked for the season last Sunday with a broken collarbone. Kaepernick's phone didn't ring.
It's also true that some of the commonly-offered rationales for Kaepernick's unemployment don't hold water. It's said, for example, that since he's been the focus of a political controversy, teams will find his presence distracting. Nothing could be more preposterous. This is a league that welcomed back in the fold a felon convicted of a repugnant crime of animal abuse (step forward, Michael Vick), and that has employed accused domestic abusers and players who have stood trial for murder. But a player who staged a lone protest against racial mistreatment is a distraction — in a league that, as the grievance observes, is 70% African American?
Kaepernick may not have the goods on the owners, at least to the extent that will satisfy the arbitrator who will hear his case. But the excuses being cited by NFL insiders and mouthpieces for his treatment — and the role played by President Trump and his White House — speak volumes.