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Players union boss DeMaurice Smith lost the ‘war’ against owners by not fighting for Kaepernick

Not recognizing the QB’s blackballing as a labor issue will hurt all players in next collective bargaining negotiations

The NFL’s season has come to an end. The Philadelphia Eagles made history Sunday by winning the city’s first Super Bowl title, upsetting New England in a record-setting performance.

The Eagles’ historic victory also ended a tumultuous football season defined by protests and introspection.

Sunday’s game underlined a point that seems obvious but is often overlooked: Players make the game. Owners provide the accoutrements, fans give their support, but players, playing a violent game without guaranteed contracts, make the game.

As the league moves forward, questions abound about the health of the game, the future of a league that continues to print money but has been forced to rethink its business model in the face of changing tastes and a waning appetite for the NFL’s violent product.

While the NFL reassesses itself, the association charged with protecting players interests, the NFL Players Association, needs to reassess itself as well.

Addressing reporters last week, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, asked about the union’s approach to upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations with NFL owners said, “We prepare for war.”

Smith’s comment was typical union boss hyperbole. Vietnam was war. Iraq was war. Afghanistan is war.

Negotiations between well-compensated players and billionaire NFL owners is not war.

Hyperbole aside, a metaphorical “war” is already taking place and Smith’s union has missed it. That is the NFL’s “war” on one recalcitrant player.

The conflict began in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality and social and economic injustice. He triggered the most divisive player protest in NFL history.

Health and safety concerns will continue to plague the NFL and will escalate after Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins’ vicious but legal hit Sunday on New England wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

Among fans, politicians, NFL owners and the players themselves, however, nothing has been as divisive as the player protest movement that Kaepernick ignited.

The free-agent quarterback, who became a league darling when he led San Francisco to the 2012 Super Bowl, has remained unemployed. For that, he represents a complex but clear labor issue.

Yet, Smith’s union has remained on the sidelines, allowing what clearly is a labor issue to be defined, framed and reframed as an issue of social justice and patriotism.

As team after team passed on Kaepernick for one reason or another, the NFLPA should have framed his unemployment publicly as a deeply concerning labor issue.

Without definition, intercession or direction from Smith, the kneeling protest became a runaway, multilayered issue that ran the gamut from social justice to patriotism to anger at President Donald Trump for cursing protesting players.

Player protests were cast as a black issue, with some pointing out that nearly 70 percent of today’s NFL players are African-American. Others argued that the other 30 percent had to be considered as well. Even Jenkins acknowledged that the Players Coalition, which he helped to organize with others, operated outside the union because “not everyone the NFLPA represents cares about social justice issues.”

But just about every player in the NFLPA cares about labor issues. Every Eagle, every Patriot. The fundamental unifying issue among players is the value and terms of their labor.

Yet, for all of Smith’s saber rattling, the Kaepernick labor issue is a battle the NFLPA has chosen to avoid. The union’s very act of neutrality will hurt the NFLPA in upcoming negotiations, when player unity will be at a premium.

On the social justice front, Kaepernick’s kneeling protest prompted the Eagles’ Jenkins and others to form the coalition. The coalition became the de facto bargaining arm of the protest movement. In December, the group agreed to a multimillion-dollar partnership with the NFL.

Jenkins subsequently said he would stop raising his fist during the national anthem. The rift between Kaepernick, former teammate Eric Reid and others who continued to protest after Jenkins stopped has been well-documented.

On Monday, Jenkins became the third member of the Eagles to say he would not attend a White House Super Bowl celebration if invited. Torrey Smith and Chris Long previously said they would not attend if the team is invited.

While the back-and-forth drama is compelling — was Kaepernick excluded? Was he invited to or disinvited from meetings? — it misses a couple of larger points.

Players are not a monolith. Black players, like black Americans, are hardly monolithic. But the history of the struggle for freedom in the United States has been based on multiple approaches and frequent disagreements. The goal of each generation is to move the ball forward. So it is with NFL players. There is no need to align in one direction. “When it comes to the work, we’re all headed toward same goal,” Jenkins told me last week. “Sometimes, we may not agree on how to get there.”

The second and more relevant point is that Smith missed, or is missing, a golden opportunity to galvanize the army of players he sorely will need to fight his so-called “war” with owners three years from now.

Smith’s “war” is not about political consciousness, or about players standing, players kneeling or patriotism. From a union perspective, the issue is protecting players.

Reid, the former San Francisco 49er who knelt along with Kaepernick, is a free agent. A close friend of Reid’s said the player asked Smith whether the NFLPA would protect him more vigorously than it did Kaepernick. The friend asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to disclose private conversations between Reid and the union.

“It’s definitely a labor issue,” Jenkins told me before the Super Bowl. “I know there are conversations with players in the PA about how we can protect players who decide to be socially active to make sure that their rights are being protected and nobody’s being blackballed.”

Framing Kaepernick as a labor issue would have galvanized players around a single, colorless, apolitical issue.

“We understand the risk we take in doing that,” Jenkins said regarding protests, “but we want to make sure our PA is making sure we’re protected.”

Kaepernick was not protected, and even if the free-agent quarterback has kept the union at arm’s length, the NFLPA has a responsibility beyond one player to protect members who publicly embrace issues that might cross ownership. When Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatens to discipline any player who kneels during the national anthem, he creates a labor issue for the NFLPA.

With few exceptions, NFL players over the years have not done well in contract negotiations with NFL owners. Players have been soundly defeated, largely because they have broken ranks.

Smith hopes that three years from now players will do to owners in labor negotiations what Philadelphia did to New England in Super Bowl LII.

As the league and players anticipate a direction moving forward, Smith’s challenge is closing a divide among players that he helped create. He says the union is preparing for “war.” Smith knows better than anyone that labor disputes are won with bold leadership, not with hyperbole and metaphor.

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.