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Colin Kaepernick Stakes a New Claim

More than a year after he first kneeled in protest, the former 49ers quarterback has filed a grievance against the NFL that alleges he is being illegally kept out of the league. Is Kaepernick grasping at straws or bringing his message back into focus?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, claiming that the league’s owners are colluding to keep him from playing on any of its 32 teams. The Tuesday before that, U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who quite enjoyed Eminem’s BET cypher verse excoriating President Donald Trump, said the rapper “could be the Colin Kaepernick of the rap world,” revealing that he neither listens to rap nor watches football. We have lost sight of who Kaepernick is and what he wants.

More than half a year has passed since Kaepernick was last on an NFL roster, and he still doesn’t have a job. To date, 39 backups have been signed ahead of him. The Ravens picked up an Arena League QB; the Dolphins exhumed the corpse of Jay Cutler. The Jaguars signed Ryan Nassib, who knew head coach Doug Marrone from college but had virtually nothing else going for him. This string of questionable signings suggested that teams were unlikely to ever call Kaepernick, even if there was a fire. But they almost certainly won’t now that he’s getting owners out into the open to deny that they are conspiring against him. It’s not hard to see how this might be true; a piece from Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman last August suggested that some NFL executives viewed him as a “traitor,” and this sentiment morphed into a larger, ongoing conversation characterizing Kaepernick as “distracting” for a locker room, despite the award he won from his teammates last year. According to a December report from ESPN, some, like his then-center Daniel Kilgore, had qualms about whether the anthem was the right time to perform his act of protest. Kaepernick addressed all their concerns in a players-only meeting, to be sure his 49ers teammates properly understood his intentions.

Still, despite the obviousness of his case, whether or not Kaepernick can prove collusion is a different thing. Many writers at many outlets have spoken to many legal experts, and the consensus is that winning a potential lawsuit will prove difficult. This raises questions about why he’s alleging collusion through the CBA and why he’s doing so now. The Tennessee Titans’ recent decision to sign Brandon Weeden as their new backup was reportedly a final straw for Kaepernick, but the care with which he’s ordered his steps, from last preseason to now, doesn’t seem to support the notion that his grievance is rash. Kaepernick has spoken to the media three times about his protest since his first in late August 2016—once to Shaun King, a civil rights activist; once to Cris Carter, a former player; and once to a reporter for CBS Sports, which was a slight misstep. Kaepernick’s reluctance to speak signals a protectiveness by himself and his advisers over how his words are interpreted. His chosen avenue of protest was, at first blush, so open to interpretation that he needed to state why he chose it. With this lawsuit, maybe he’s doing that again—and reclaiming his message from the league that has co-opted the same protest for which Kaepernick was condemned.

By now you know why Kaepernick kneeled. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he said in August 2016 about the ongoing injustice of police brutality against black people in America. You also know that kneeling in protest caught on, and spread across the sports world, from professional women’s soccer on down to high school football. The message behind the kneeling has been diluted through a disheartening game of ideological telephone, to the point that it’s basically the dab now. Actually, calling kneeling the dab is the dab now.

You also know that Trump droned on about the protests during 80 windy minutes on September 23 during a rally for a Senate candidate who went on to lose his Republican primary in Alabama. And that at one point, as if seeing something shiny and fun in the distance, he chased a tangent about the NFL. He talked about TV ratings, which are down, and penalties—specifically the ones designed to promote player safety—of which he said there are too many. But the part of Trump’s speech that would gallop around the world was the bit about the protests, a fireable offense if Trump had his druthers. (He recently reiterated his desire for punishment, this time advocating for suspensions.) The thrust of Trump’s impassioned admonition, which didn’t note Kaepernick by name, was that players who fail to stand during the national anthem were “disrespecting our flag,” and therefore the military, and by extension the country. (For his part, Vice President Mike Pence would later attempt to demonstrate his prodigious reverence for the troops by going to a Colts game likely just to make a show of leaving it early upon seeing players kneel, a gesture that cost taxpayers an estimated $242,500.)

The Sunday after Trump’s initial comments, NFL players from multiple teams responded in different ways—by sitting, kneeling, locking arms, or raising fists—before the anthem and during it. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement. “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we've experienced over the last month,” he said. A few owners and team leaders followed suit. Their statements expressed unease over the country’s leadership, deeper unease with Trump’s comments—which seemingly everyone could agree were “divisive”—or a broad and featureless concern that might include anything. None of the owners made any direct mention of the police violence or racial injustice that motivated Kaepernick’s protest. His original intention has been swallowed whole by the PR machinations of a disorganized oligarchy.

The following Monday night, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, one of seven owners who donated at least $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee either personally or through companies, took the field at University of Phoenix Stadium to kneel with his team before the anthem. Jones later stood for the anthem itself, but he kneeled in solidarity—a word that, like the polite act it modifies, means basically nothing now. Put more succinctly, Jones, one of the owners who condemned Kaepernick, then participated in the same activity for which he and other owners allegedly had blackballed Kaepernick. Jones’s conflicting actions, allegedly in the name of “unity,” now also put his players in the position of having to answer a slew of questions about his motivations—a predicament that could easily be called a locker-room distraction. Two weeks later, Jones said that any Cowboy who “disrespects the flag” wouldn’t be allowed to play.

“Unity” probably isn’t what Kaepernick had in mind. Not when he first decided to sit for the raising of the flag and the singing of the national anthem, ultimately sacrificing (or at least stalling) his playing career, more than 14 months ago now. “Unity,” as commonly defined, means “peace and quiet.” “Unity” is at best running in place, and at all times brand management. “Unity” is sitting astride the fence—or not so secretly on the other side of it—giving equal weight to every viewpoint, pleasing all the sponsors, congratulating itself, and blocking the horizon. “Unity” is empty, loud, and obtrusive. At its core, “unity” doesn’t challenge systems of power, or even inconvenience them. It’s an opportunity for those with power to continue wielding theirs against those with less of it, all the while selling the idea that things are surely changing, even as they remain the same. Togetherness and freedom are coded nouns and an easy sell; it’s not “justice” that ownership wants, it’s minimal fuss.

So consider that, as NFL locker rooms unified around a cause they wouldn’t clearly name, no one offered this unity movement’s erstwhile progenitor a position on their team. There have been takes about how he’s just not good enough at football, but none that hold up to scrutiny. Kaepernick lacks a contract because of purely political reasons, and arguments otherwise are disingenuous. It seems that the only outcome of his long-shot collusion grievance against the NFL will be to make a point, but perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps Kaepernick is demonstrating that the only unity that exists in the NFL is the united interests of ownership, hence the collusion complaint. It could be an effort to take the reins of the overarching Conversation back, inasmuch as he can. To help us remember exactly what we were talking about in the first place, which has been all but forgotten. Kind of like Kaepernick himself, who has nearly made good on his promise to put $1 million of his own salary toward the causes he’s brought to our collective attention; you can see where the money’s going right there on his website.

On Tuesday, team owners, union executives, and players held a summit on social justice issues at NFL headquarters in midtown Manhattan. A league source, as reported by The MMQB’s Albert Breer, said that the “meeting was positive and represented unprecedented dialogue with the players.” In a joint statement, the NFL and the NFLPA said that it was “productive”—which, like “unity,” speaks more to the image of progress than the substance of it. “Productivity” in this setting speaks not to the resolution of players’ grievances, but rather to the players’ airing those concerns in a manner agreed upon and approved by the league. According to former NFL lineman and SNY analyst Willie Colon, however, Goodell was reading a newspaper during that meeting, and “nothing got done.”

And when the subject of Kaepernick came up? “I was told it went straight to a bathroom break, and it wasn’t even talked about,” Colon said.

That’s the thing about meetings: They can be considered “productive” so long as everyone present gets a word in. The same can be said about “dialogue”—in the national conversation about race, the mere fact that there’s a national conversation about race is seen as progress in and of itself. Learning that racism is an active, present, systematic thing that affects disparate social outcomes is just the first part. The rest is work, and like the work of being a healthy and decent person, it’s often thankless, and tiresome, and never really finished. But it has to be done anyway.