By Jason Keidel
In the matter of Colin Kaepernick vs. the NFL, there’s one defining question, one that dwarfs his deeds on the gridiron.
Is it collusion or coincidence?
Have owners and general managers each decided autonomously not to sign the former 49ers quarterback? Or are they conspiring to keep Kaepernick from joining an NFL roster?
While legal minds can better parse the particulars, there’s clearly an effort by NFL teams to avoid Kaepernick, or at least the public relations baggage that he brings. The hard part is proving the effort is synchronized.
Either way, nothing that has transpired over the free-agency period and beyond is logical enough to suggest Kaepernick isn’t qualified. Just a few days ago, after making it known he and his bosses were talking to the quarterback, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll asserted that Kaepernick is not only good enough to remain employed, he’s also a starting QB in the NFL.
Then the Seahawks signed Austin Davis, who has a 3-7 record in the league, over someone who was one tipped pass from winning a Super Bowl, who tossed 16 touchdowns and four interceptions on a team that finished 2-14 last year.
We know the source of the reticence and anxiety, of course. Signing Kaepernick will be seen to some as a quasi-endorsement of his activism, specifically his refusal to stand for the national anthem. While Kaepernick had to expect some blowback for his actions, it’s really not reasonable to assume that this continuing wave of negativity would hound him.
The obvious observation is that there’s no way 96 quarterbacks — three for each NFL club — are better than Kaepernick. Even if you assume he’s decayed, physically, spiritually or both, from his peak years playing for Jim Harbaugh, there’s enough there and on film to declare with great certainty that he’s at least a backup on most, if not all, teams.
Now that Tony Romo has swapped his helmet for TV headset, it’s hard to think of a single, second-string quarterback who has more talent or accomplishments than Kaepernick. While Cincinnati has either shopped or been asked about A.J. McCarron, few would say with absolute candor that the Bengals backup is better.
Indeed, try naming a single player clutching a clipboard you’d rather have. Landry Jones? Ryan Nassib? Geno Smith? Look at the miserable amalgam of signal-callers in Cleveland or jousting for a spot on the Jets. A recent report on NJ.com says Jets second-round draft pick Christian Hackenberg is so bad that sideline reporters have to duck when he heaves the ball.
Would you rather have presumed Jets starter Josh McCown than Kaepernick? Do you prefer Brock Osweiler in Cleveland? Chicago is playing a QB shell game between top draft pick Mitchell Trubisky and free-agent signing Mike Glennon. Kaepernick is easily more able than either.
So it’s a cultural cocktail among owners that makes Kaepernick so toxic. Venerable Giants owner John Mara, whose family has been in the NFL since the Stone Age of pro football, said his customers bristled just at the thought of Kaepernick wearing No. 7 on Big Blue. And when Mara speaks, his message echoes across the league.
In Kaepernick’s defense, there’s a certain hypocrisy to all this. Athletes found guilty of all manner of malfeasance — especially domestic violence — get those endless “second chances” the NFL so proudly affords. Yet Kaepernick, who has never run afoul of the law, is being treated worse than, say, Joe Mixon. Even Greg Hardy found a second employer after his galling violence against a woman.
In fairness, Kaepernick is not entirely innocent, or just a bystander at his own vocational funeral. In a sport swathed in patriotism, he did the one thing that most find most blasphemous. The only thing in pro football more sacred than the NFL shield is the American flag. While his message is fair, reasonable and important, the way he conveyed it is what has the football gods scared to sign him.
But there’s one thing Kaepernick can do in his own defense — defend himself. He’s been mute on all matters since the 2016 season ended. Other than making it known he will stand for the Star Spangled Banner, he’s done nothing to assuage the queasy NFL bosses. Just hold an impromptu presser, tell the world that while he’s not sorry for squatting during the anthem, he understands why it resonated so profoundly across the nation.
Tell the nation that you will find less acerbic ways of reminding Americans that while football is a meritocracy, America still isn’t quite one for everyone.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.