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Kaepernick called an audible and beat the NFL at its game

No matter what the league had in mind, it failed

RIVERDALE, Ga. — Colin Kaepernick proved beyond any doubt on Saturday that he belongs in the NFL.

During an hourlong workout on a high school football field in Riverdale, Georgia, Kaepernick did all of the things NFL personnel would expect to see from an elite-caliber quarterback. He threw out routes on a rope, pinpointed slants, connected on medium and long routes. One scout on site said he believed that Kaepernick still had an elite arm.

That is not why Kaepernick proved he belongs in the league.

On Saturday, he showed the maturity and tactical acumen of an elite NFL field general.

Kaepernick outmaneuvered the NFL. No matter what the league had in mind, it failed.

All the quarterbacks who signed since Colin Kaepernick became a free agent

Last week the NFL, accused by critics since 2016 of blackballing Kaepernick, put together a hastily- convened workout at the Atlanta Falcons training facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia.

While the workout had the trappings of legitimacy — with low-level scouts in attendance — it had the smell of a sham. The workout came out of the commissioner’s office. No team had offered Kaepernick a tryout in three years. Why now?

No media would be allowed to watch the workout, and Kaepernick’s team would not be allowed to videotape it. The NFL would be judge, jury and — if it came to that — executioner.

The league would videotape the workout, distribute it to all 32 teams and make a determination on Kaepernick’s NFL-readiness — or worthiness.

Invariably word would leak out about the myriad deficiencies and rust that Kaepernick’s workout revealed.

The NFL, as it often does, would determine the narrative.

On Saturday, at the last moment, Kaepernick called an audible. He canceled the workout at Flowery Branch and switched it to Charles Drew High School, an hour’s drive away. I was in a car outside the Falcons’ training facility when word spread that plans had changed.

This was not some hastily drawn-up play in the sand on a playground. This shrewd, well-organized move took everybody by surprise. An audible that caught the NFL napping.

The workout was executed with efficiency and coordination. By the time the media had shifted from the Falcons training camp to the high school, Kaepernick’s security team was already in place. There was security at the entrance to the high school checking off names. The security at the entrance to the field lined up the media, checking bags, then sending media personnel through.

Colin Kaepernick greets fans after a workout for NFL football scouts and media on Nov. 16 in Riverdale, Georgia.

AP Photo/Todd Kirkland

Even the site selected for the workout was symbolic. Charles Drew High School was named in honor of the brilliant black surgeon who pioneered methods of storing blood plasma, an innovation that saved thousands of lives during World War II.

In retrospect, it’s likely that Kaepernick never intended to work out at the Falcons facility.

Why would a man who meticulously constructed the image of a football activist, shunned by the league, validate a sham tryout by participating it?

Kaepernick called an audible on Saturday and took back the narrative.

The reason for making the switch, Kaepernick would tell us later, was “making sure we had transparency of what went on.”

If the NFL’s hastily-arranged workout was a publicity stunt, Kaepernick responded with a stunt of his own, one that was far more effective in securing his imprimatur as a man of the people.

He laid out the new rules: The workout would be open to the public and to the media.

After the workout, word spread that he would address the media — albeit in a one-way polemic — for the first time in three years.

The workout was as much of a protest rally as it was a football workout, designed to solidify Kaepernick’s base and cement his reputation as the People’s Champion. He spent as much time mingling with fans as he did working out.

Finally, Kaerpernick came over and addressed the cluster of media.

“I’ve been ready for three years. I’ve been denied for three years. We all know why,” he said Saturday.

“Y’all been attacked for the last three years. Y’all continued to be attacked. We appreciate what y’all do,” he said. “We appreciate you being here today. We appreciate the work you do for the people in telling the truth.”

Kaepernick seemed to mistake the presence and persistence of media as sign of support, not the tenacity to follow the news and report it. The truth is that in pursuit of a story — the media allowed itself to be manipulated by the NFL and by Kaepernick.

I support Kaepernick, admired the courage he showed in 2016. However, the narrative has now shifted. It is no longer about being blackballed, no longer about not being given a tryout. What is he going to do moving forward, likely without football?

As he continued his soliloquy Saturday, Kaepernick made a statement that let me know he had no intention — or interest — in ever playing in the NFL: “We’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running. Stop running from the truth, stop running from the people.”

Before he left, Kaepernick added:

“We’ll continue to give you updates as we hear. We’ll be waiting to hear from Roger Goodell, the NFL, and the 32 teams. We will let you know if we hear from them. The ball’s in their court.”

There likely will be no return or volley.

The NFL won, Kaepernick won and the media won. Kaepernick gave the NFL the out that it needed, and in antagonizing the NFL, Kaepernick gave himself the multibillion-dollar NFL enemy of the people he needs.

Free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick arrives at a workout for NFL football scouts and media on Nov. 16 in Riverdale, Georgia.

AP Photo/Todd Kirkland

The only losers are anyone who wanted to see Kaepernick get a chance to play quarterback in the NFL.

During Kaepernick’s NFL exile, many speculated that teams simply do not want the media circus and distraction that comes with having him on their team.

However, the real reason many NFL teams do not want Kaepernick has nothing to do with distractions and circuses. Many NFL teams do not want a player of Kaepernick’s vision, insight and influence in a locker room full of impressionable young black players who might have their eyes opened by what Kaepernick has to say.

As a young player, Kaepernick beat teams with his arm and his legs. Today at age 32, Kaepernick can win with his mind as well. That is what he did Saturday.

That’s what frightens the NFL.

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.