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Is Kaepernick being used by the NFL?

After three-plus years since his protests, 11 teams get a look at what he can now do at age 32

The deck is stacked against Colin Kaepernick.

I know it, you know it, the NFL knows it, and, of course, Kaepernick knows it. Yet on Saturday, Kaepernick is scheduled to participate in what feels like a hastily convened public relations tryout in Atlanta.

Earlier this week, Kaepernick’s former teammate and close friend Eric Reid called Saturday’s tryout a PR stunt. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but if it is, why is Kaepernick participating? Is he so eager to get back into the spotlight or the NFL that he’s willing to participate in a charade?

What Kaepernick thinks has remained a well-guarded secret. We don’t know and we won’t know what Kaepernick was thinking until his book is published.

Kaepernick, through his people, has consistently maintained his desire to play football in the NFL. Perhaps we’ve all underestimated the extent to which Kaepernick misses being an NFL player, or at least the extent to which he misses the roar of the crowd.

Maybe he’s been inspired to play by the number of young black quarterbacks tearing up the league. It must be exhilarating on one hand, torturous on the other, for Kaepernick to watch the revolution taking place at quarterback this season.

Russell Wilson, only a year younger than Kaepernick, is having an MVP-caliber season in Seattle. Dak Prescott is having a solid season in Dallas. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson is becoming a legend and Houston’s Deshaun Watson is not far behind. Teddy Bridgewater saved New Orleans’ season when he filled in for the injured Drew Brees. Jacoby Brissett stepped in for the Indianapolis Colts when Andrew Luck unexpectedly retired and had the Colts in playoff contention until he was injured.

Their performances may help Kaepernick’s case. His style of play at quarterback fits right in with the run-pass-option style currently all the rage in the NFL.

I was convinced three years ago that Kaepernick had gotten football out of his system, that he was content to operate on a smaller stage as a celebrity activist. But maybe he really misses the game.

Still, his eagerness to try out is baffling.

I was convinced three years ago that Kaepernick had gotten football out of his system, that he was content to operate on a smaller stage as a celebrity activist. But maybe he really misses the game. That happens, when a player steps away too early.

Jim Brown famously walked away from the NFL at age 29. His departure came to epitomize the triumph of leaving on top. We spoke about that decision during a 2016 conversation.

In reality, Brown would probably have stayed another year had Art Modell, the Cleveland Browns owner, not tried to bully Brown into attending training camp. Brown was filming a movie in England and delays had pushed filming into the beginning of training camp. Remember, Brown was the reigning league MVP – and he was Jim Brown. Had Modell been flexible, had he gone to England to speak with Brown, had he not forced Brown’s hand, Brown would have returned to Cleveland and continued mentoring Leroy Kelly, whom he was grooming to take his place.

Brown walked away from the game. Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016, all but walked away when he played out his option in San Francisco and took his chances in free agency. Both players still had a love for the game at the time of their respective departures. Brown was a legend by the time he left. He went on to have a successful career as an actor and activist.

Kaepernick was on his way to consistent stardom, but had a ways to go.

Activism has been gratifying for Kaepernick. As more athletes followed his lead of kneeling, Kaepernick became the face of protests by modern professional athletes. His efforts have been recognized and he has received a number of awards.

Still, there is something intoxicating about having 50,000 fans cheering for you as they did during the 2012 season, when Kaepernick burst onto the scene. He then was like the Ravens’ Jackson is now. He was a breath of fresh air when he became the 49ers’ starter midway through the 2012 season. He led San Francisco to its first Super Bowl appearance in 18 seasons. A season later, Kaepernick led the 49ers to the NFC championship game.

From left to right: San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel in protest during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, California.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Fans have a low moral bar when it comes to cheering for players who can help them win.

During that Super Bowl run, Kaepernick could have stood on his head during the national anthem and been cheered. He was hot. Had he held out or walked away, another team would eagerly have snapped him up, politics, morals, ethics be dammed.

Now, three years removed, not so much.

He played out his option at the end of the 2016 season and was not offered a contract or even a tryout until now. Every time a lesser quarterback was signed and Kaepernick remained unsigned, his banishment became part of a damning narrative for the NFL.

Kaepernick is far more significant off the field and out of uniform than he’d be carrying a clipboard as a backup. Which brings us back to why is Kaepernick willing to go through the potential sham of a tryout.

During a conversation last year, Harry Edwards told me he thought that Kaepernick would be better served by walking away from the game. Edwards suggested that Kaepernick call a news conference and tell the media: “I have other things I want to do, because I am not a football player. I’m a man and I have an entire spectrum of interests, one of them, at one time, happened to be football, and I was very good at it. But it’s time to move on.”

Clearly, it’s not.

Kaepernick will perform for 11 NFL teams Saturday. Hopefully, one will be impressed enough to offer a contract.

At the very least, Saturday’s tryout will take several entities off the hook:

  • The NFL, which alienated many of its young fans by blackballing Kaepernick, can now say it gave Kaepernick a tryout.
  • The National Football League Players Association, which failed miserably in its primary responsibility to protect one of its own, can say it helped broker the tryout.
  • Jay-Z, the music industry mogul who undercut his credibility as a man of the people by cutting a deal with the NFL, can also take credit for giving Kaepernick a tryout. During a conversation with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Jay-Z declared, “We’re past kneeling.” Jay-Z was criticized for his statement; in retrospect, he may have been right.
Kaepernick is far more significant off the field and out of uniform than he’d be carrying a clipboard as a backup. Which brings us back to why is Kaepernick willing to go through the potential sham of a tryout.

The kneeling movement has largely died, thanks in large part to the Players Coalition brokering a deal with NFL owners. Only three or four players still kneel and Kaepernick said more than a year ago that that he would not kneel if signed.

The reality is that head coaches and front-office executives don’t have to see Kaepernick play. Most of them have known all along that Kaepernick is probably better than many of their backup quarterbacks.

Is Saturday’s tryout a publicity stunt? That depends on whether Kaepernick will be given a fair opportunity.

The most important question surrounding Saturday’s event is what type of chance will Kaepernick receive. The question reminds me of a haunting conversation I had in 1974 with Joe Gilliam when he was vying to be the Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback.

Gillam said that a black quarterback’s fate depended on what type of opportunity he received. “Will you get a chance or a n—–’s chance?” Gilliam said.

It’s amazing that 40 years later we’re still asking the same question in connection with a black quarterback who took a knee in order to take a stand.

What kind of chance will Colin Kaepernick receive?

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.