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Why it’s time for the NFL to bring Colin Kaepernick back

There’s only one thing that will bring the league legitimacy with its critics

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently admitted the league erred in how it handled peaceful player protests of police brutality and systemic oppression. Last week, the NFL both considerably increased its social justice footprint and committed to observing June 19 – Juneteenth, celebrated as the effective end of slavery in the United States – as a company holiday and closing the league offices.

For all of the NFL’s outreach to its on-field workforce, which is about 70% black, and African American fans offended by past mistakes, Goodell still hasn’t taken the two most important steps needed to begin the reconciliation process in earnest: apologize to Colin Kaepernick and give a full-throated endorsement of his return to the league. Until Goodell completes that two-step process, no amount of money donated to underprivileged communities or days off for league employees to commemorate the black experience in America will satisfy the NFL’s many critics, who view those efforts as illegitimate because Kaepernick has been on the outside looking in for the past three seasons.

“It’s first-degree, premeditated hypocrisy,” said USC law professor Jody David Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making. “They are speaking with a forked tongue. There’s no other way to characterize their words. Their conciliatory words of atonement … are being drowned out by their deeds because Kaepernick still does not have a job.”

Make no mistake: From a football standpoint, there’s no legitimate reason that Kaepernick hasn’t been on an NFL roster since the end of the 2016 season. The onetime San Francisco starter led the 49ers in two NFC championship games and a Super Bowl, made 58 career starts and has the sixth-best touchdown-to-interception ratio in league history. That’s a strong body of work.

Before the 2017 season, The Undefeated asked two NFC offensive playcallers to provide a detailed analysis of Kaepernick’s performance. Each went through a long checklist of his strengths and weaknesses, based on their evaluation of the former second-round pick’s game tape through the years, on throws, footwork, pocket presence, reading defenses, etc. At the end of each discussion, both playcallers said Kaepernick was more than good enough to be in the league. When asked whether they expected Kaepernick to be signed, each declined to comment. Almost three years after those discussions, the league remains silent about the player who ignited a national movement by first sitting and then kneeling to shine a light on police brutality and systemic oppression.

“The NFL can’t buy a conscience or purchase the belief that it is committed to a more just world. It has to demonstrate that commitment in its actions,” Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr., who teaches religion and African American studies, wrote in a text message to The Undefeated.

During his video apology, Goodell briefly became a contortionist to avoid mentioning Kaepernick by name, as if NFL fans are unaware of the fact Kaepernick occupies a position at the front of the line in the protest movement. Goodell’s gymnastics routine illustrated the level of animosity league officials, in general, still have toward the passer.

In the NFL, quarterbacks are the face of the game and, therefore, the most protected class. They have rules designed to maintain their safety, are paid higher and have been rewarded more than other players. Owners, to a degree, view franchise signal-callers as partners in ensuring the success of professional sports’ most powerful league. To have a quarterback engage in behavior that enraged (white) fans and alarmed the league’s corporate sponsors, regardless of the fact that Kaepernick endeavored to help communities of color under siege, well, that was deemed unacceptable among the league’s power brokers.

Kaepernick messed with the owners’ money, which was tantamount to messing with their emotions. Their fractured relationship only worsened after he filed a collusion grievance, which the league settled in 2019. The debacle of Kaepernick’s league-arranged workout in November appeared to punctuate things, with so much distrust on each side that the door appeared to be shut for good on Kaepernick’s NFL career.

But what was once considered undoable now seems achievable as the nation experiences a reckoning on race in the weeks after the horrific killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. With protesters marching in many cities, Congress is debating police reform. Major corporations are reevaluating their diversity and inclusion plans while publicly affirming that black lives matter. Statues honoring the Confederacy have been toppled. And NASCAR — NASCAR — banned the Confederate flag. The environment is more ripe for change than at any point since the 1960s, and public opinion has swung significantly in favor of players, who will likely protest again during the upcoming season.

Even New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, who in his role as co-founder of the Players Coalition has been at odds with Kaepernick on some issues involving the movement, recently ripped owners for Kaepernick still not having a gig. Clearly, we’re in a new place.

Of course, given Kaepernick’s high-profile feud with the league, it would be unusual for him to return, said Susan D. Carle, a professor of law at the American University Washington College of Law.

“Typically, in a situation where an employer and an employee settle a claim without the employee coming back, it means that the relationship between the employer and employee is so ruined that one side or the other is not interested in doing that,” said Carle, an expert in discrimination, labor and employment law.

“The idea that you wouldn’t reinstate [at the time the case is settled] and then later would decide, ‘Oh, yeah, sure, come back anyway,’ well, that’s very bizarre. I don’t know of a case where that’s ever happened. I can’t say it’s never happened, but it’s certainly not something that we hear about or see.”

Still, the only thing precluding a club from signing Kaepernick is the absence of political will. But with sweeping change occurring in the country seemingly by the minute, it would be good politics for the NFL to bring Kap back. That may be partly why Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said a club recently contacted him to discuss signing Kaepernick, whose last private workout for a team was with Seattle in 2017. Carroll declined to reveal the team.

Just in case anyone thinks that Kaepernick, who will turn 33 in November, is too old or has too much rust to contribute in the NFL, remember that there’s a dearth of competent quarterbacks in the league. On many teams, he’d still fit in just fine.

Goodell can’t compel a club to sign the free agent. But if he picked up the phone and strongly encouraged clubs to consider making the move, well, it wouldn’t be the first time an NFL commissioner spurred action by pulling strings behind the scenes.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Goodell remains salty about the Atlanta workout fiasco and would rather never hear Kaepernick’s name uttered in connection with the NFL again. But Goodell is smarter than that. He sees the big picture. Especially now. For the NFL, Kaepernick is a problem that won’t go away until he’s back.

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