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Colin Kaepernick, 49ers players keep pressure on NFL owners

Quarterback files grievance and some former teammates continue to protest two days before league meetings

HYATTSVILLE, Maryland — Two days before the NFL moves to finally tackle the divisive issue of players protesting during the national anthem, the player who started the leaguewide movement alleged that owners have colluded to end his career and his former team continued to demonstrate in hopes of pushing management to help bridge the nation’s racial divide.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who first sat and then kneeled last season in an effort to draw attention to racial injustice in the U.S., filed a grievance under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement alleging that owners have conspired to keep him out of the league. The still-unemployed quarterback took the action without help of the NFL Players Association. Meanwhile, owners and other top NFL decision-makers readied for the two-day meetings scheduled to begin Tuesday in New York City, at which commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to unveil a detailed plan to support players who have demonstrated peacefully for more than a year over issues critically important to African-American communities. Here at FedEx Field, seven members of the 49ers, the franchise that has been the most politically active, protested under the direction of veteran safety Eric Reid, who was the second person to kneel alongside Kaepernick.

Just another day in the NFL ever since Kaepernick took a stand that he believes derailed his career. Instead of pursuing a grievance through the union, as many players do, Kaepernick hired attorney Mark Geragos, who has represented many high-profile candidates, including Michael Jackson and rhythm and blues artist Chris Brown. The filing was first reported by Bleacher Report.

Activist-players and civil rights leaders have blasted the league for, in their opinion, sidelining Kaepernick only because of his political views. They’ve cited Kaepernick’s win-loss record and other statistics in arguing it’s obvious that the talented passer is being blackballed. On Sunday, a large crowd assembled at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore to support Kaepernick before the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Chicago Bears. In August, a crowd estimated at more than 1,500 people gathered in front of NFL headquarters in New York to show their support for the person who has become the face of the new battle for civil rights.

For his part, Kaepernick has mostly remained silent and continued training in hopes of joining a team this season. But with the league in Week 6 and Kaepernick having been repeatedly passed over for jobs by far less-accomplished passers, it has become clear that, at only 29, his time in the NFL is likely over. In an email Sunday night to The Undefeated, Geragos wrote that the grievance was filed “only after pursuing every possible avenue with all NFL teams and their executives” to get Kaepernick back in the game.

The email continued: “If the NFL (as well as all professional sports leagues) is to remain a meritocracy, then principled and peaceful protest — which the owners themselves made great theater imitating weeks ago — should not be punished and athletes should not be denied employment based on partisan political provocation by the Executive Branch of our government,” alluding to President Donald Trump, who blasted Kaepernick and many NFL and NBA players for their work on behalf of others. “Such a precedent threatens all patriotic Americans and harkens back to our darkest days as a nation. Protecting all athletes from such collusive conduct is what compelled Mr. Kaepernick to file his grievance.”

Anyone can file a grievance. Winning is another matter.

Kaepernick faces a major challenge, according to Susan D. Carle, a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. Carle, an expert in discrimination, labor and employment law, said Kaepernick must show that the NFL violated his rights.

“He would have to show that each of the teams, that they didn’t just on their own decide not to sign him but that at least two of them somehow had a communication and said, ‘We’re not going to pick him because he’s trouble. Let’s just kind of blackball him,’ ” Carle said Sunday. “He would have to have some evidence to show that. If he couldn’t show any communication between at least two teams, it would be really hard to make the claim.

“It doesn’t have to be a written memo. It could be an oral communication that somebody’s willing to testify about. If he had an ally on one of the teams who could say, ‘Yeah, I heard these [officials from two teams] say we’re going to stay away from him.’ That could be enough. … But there are reasons to bring the claim even if he’s going to lose. He could bring it just to keep the heat on the NFL.”

At FedEx Field, the 49ers didn’t let up on owners.

Reid explained that the group of 49ers protesters was smaller than usual — before the team’s previous two games, more than 20 players took a knee each time — because of his mistake in communicating what the team’s approach should be before facing the Redskins. FedEx Field is only about 15 miles from the White House. Reid is among the leaders of the movement frustrated that opponents of their efforts, including President Trump, have framed their actions as being disrespectful to the flag, the military, and the government and its institutions in general. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence cut short his attendance at an Indianapolis Colts-49ers game after several players on the visiting 49ers dropped to one knee. After the anthem, the former governor of Indiana and his wife abruptly left Lucas Oil Stadium.

“I was considering, since we’re in the nation’s capital, standing to finally put to bed the accusations that we don’t respect the military,” Reid said Sunday after the 49ers dropped to 0-6. “I did a poor job getting back to all the guys and saying, ‘We’re just continuing the message. We’re going to kneel and keep saying it’s not about disrespecting them.’ ”

Despite the smaller protest, Reid was nonetheless pleased that the 49ers again took action in advance of the NFL meetings. The players’ association also is expected to participate in the meetings, and Reid hopes that the NFL “will be progressive and utilize [its] platform to bring awareness to these issues for us so we don’t have to protest anymore. That would be the ultimate goal for me going into the meetings.”

Since late last season, activist-players have privately expressed concerns that the protests threatened to obscure their larger message. If the league finally hears them and is ready to fully support their causes, well, that’s great news, Reid said.

“We just want progress to be made on these issues,” he said. “When Colin and I started protesting, it was to raise awareness. The goal of the meetings would be to continue to raise awareness. To raise awareness, but just doing it through the NFL platform” moving forward.

From all appearances, the NFL is ready to go all in.

Recently, Detroit Lions owner Martha Ford asked players to stand for the anthem. In return, she promised to financially support the players’ causes. Goodell, in a letter to owners last week, stressed the need to both “promote the work of our players on core issues” and end the divisiveness over the protests that threaten “to erode the unifying power of our game.” Some players are highly encouraged about their ongoing dialogue with the league, and eager for the meetings to start.

No matter what occurs at the meetings, though, the issue of what has happened to Kaepernick, the person who started all of this, will always be a sore point with some.

“It sure does seem that he’s being blackballed,” said Reid, who remains close with his former teammate. “All the stats prove that he’s an NFL-worthy quarterback. That’s his choice [to file a grievance], and I support his decision. We’ll just have to see what comes of it.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.