Here’s how I hope the Colin Kaepernick collusion case plays out: There is a video tape, and on it, 32 owners are sitting in a circle in a dark Knights Templar/Skull & Bones/Stonecutters setting, wearing robes, and decreeing before a golden altar that no team shall sign Kaepernick. They then mutter an oath in a dead language of the ancients, and the camera pans to reveal Roger Goodell leather-strapped naked to the wall with an apple in his mouth.
While the benchmark to prove collusion seems low — Kaepernick has to prove that at least two teams, or one team and the NFL, acted together to keep him unsigned — it’s really hard to define what is a collusive act.
Very likely, there is no smoking gun, and 32 teams decided more-or-less independently to sign 39 other backup quarterbacks and leave Kaepernick (who, again, had a 90.7 passer rating on a bad 49ers team last season and, again, once quarterbacked a Super Bowl team) without a job.
I wish more conspiracies were true. The world would be a better place if evil people were more outlandishly evil. The bad guys would wear black, and their motives wouldn’t be any more complicated than “I’m a dick,” just like in every Star Wars movie. Everyone would know where everyone else stands. Evil would be labeled evil, and the rest of the world could decide what they’d like to do about it.
But that’s usually not how the world works, nor is that how I reckon NFL owners behave. The better, and much sadder, explanation is that they’re lazy.
First, you need to accept the fact that Kaepernick is overqualified to be an NFL backup (Stephen White covered that), that he wouldn’t be a locker room detriment (his 49ers teammates gave him an award for being an inspiring and courageous example), and that he isn’t out for attention. (Kaepernick has spoken to the media about his protest exactly three times since August 2016.)
What’s left is the truth that NFL owners never have to try harder than they need to anymore. There was a window back in, say, April when an NFL team could have signed Kaepernick. The team would have had to answer a lot of questions about its controversial new quarterback at the time, but that news cycle would have petered out and become a simmer.
The league’s laziness — in this and many other instances — was couched in soft excuses. A couple of teams sort of had a point. Maybe it made sense for the Seahawks to keep Kaepernick out of the locker room at a time when Russell Wilson was grating on teammates. And yeah, it would have been hard for the Chiefs to fit him in after investing $68 million in Alex Smith and a first-round pick in Pat Mahomes. The excuses get a lot worse from there, however — what the hell do you want, Miami — and may have varied just enough from team to team to make a collusion case impossible.
But the truth is the truth: Every team in the NFL could be stronger at the quarterback position right now if any one of them had made an effort to be better back then. Now it’s much too late. The season is underway, and Kaepernick has become a nuclear topic.
One of the most disturbing things about the NFL is the way that teams have lost their incentive to be good. It doesn’t matter all that much if they win when revenue is shared and they’ve locked in rich television contracts. The people deciding Kaepernick’s employment have essentially cashed out. They’ve decided they’d rather give fans a worse product than assume a modicum of risk.
Risk reduction is the NFL’s primary mode of operation. It’s the reason why the NFL has become a milquetoast league of its own design, in which teams are trending more and more toward 8-8 and exceptionalism is discouraged. It’s also the reason why Goodell releases mealy-mouthed statement after mealy-mouthed statement staking out a position of no position. During his press conference following owners meetings last week, Goodell deflected when asked a concrete question about what the NFL plans to do if an owner punishes players for kneeling or sitting during the national anthem (emphasis added).
We just had two days of conversations with our owners, of which this was a fair amount of the conversation. And I think our clubs all see this the same way, that we want our players to stand, we're going to continue to encourage them to stand, and we're going to continue to work on these issues in the community. I can't deal with hypotheticals right now. We'll deal with those issues if they come up. But for us, right now, that's our focus.
That response brazenly contradicts itself — You don’t “deal with hypotheticals,” yet you discussed the topic for two days? — but that’s the NFL’s default course of action: Try to ride out waves of chaos and hope that half measures will land it safely ashore. The league doesn’t realize how much inaction feeds that chaos.
The NFL has made some positive steps to support players, like a vague promise to promote issues important to them, and a formal endorsement of a criminal justice reform bill. Whether those are sincere efforts are another question, however. After meetings, former Steelers guard Willie Colon reported that owners called a bathroom break when Kaepernick was brought up, and that Goodell was reading a newspaper while players spoke.
Big Willie. Putting the situation -- and Goodell -- on blast.— Colin Dunlap (@colin_dunlap) October 17, 2017
The NFL-NFLPA stance on the national anthem remains at “We ... pledged to meet again to continue this work together.” Meanwhile, they solicited yet another angry tweet from the president, beginning this chaotic cycle anew.
But none of that matters. NFL ownership may be driving the league’s constant PR crises, but it won’t feel the consequences. It’s easy to paint a road map to the league’s demise — let’s say, a critical mass of players leaves the sport because of health concerns, fans likewise lose interest in a sport they know is ruining men, and the game itself becomes a terrible slog to watch — but the end point may be several decades from now, well after the people who could have acted have sold out or died.
So no, Kaepernick probably isn’t going to win his collusion case. He may already know that, too. At the very least, he can reiterate exactly why he kneeled after the NFL, in a show of “Unity,” conveniently muddied the point of his protest. At the same time, he can hopefully lift the curtain on a group owners who couldn’t give enough of a shit about their own business to collude.