Former San Francisco 49ers players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid are aiming to prove NFL owners colluded to keep them out of the league due to the players’ decision to kneel during the national anthem prior to games in protest of racial inequality and police brutality.
According to their legal representation, led by lawyer Mark Geragos, the influence of President Donald Trump is at the core of their case against the NFL.
“They were clearly colluding because they were intimidated by the president,” Geragos said in an interview with CBS’ Amy Dash. “The only reason — and the owners will admit this — that they haven’t signed him is because of Trump, and they’ve colluded because of Trump.”
To prove collusion, Geragos’ team will seek to show that Trump improperly impacted NFL owners’ decisions regarding Kaepernick, and that owners then advised one another not to sign the quarterback.
Why does Trump’s opinion of Kaepernick matter?
In a vacuum, Trump’s thoughts on Kaepernick wouldn’t have any bearing on the NFL. A few years ago, he was an advocate for Tim Tebow getting another chance in the league to no avail.
But as president, Trump’s thoughts carry more weight — particularly, when there’s a base behind him that can impact the league’s favorability and ratings. Trump has made no effort to hide his thoughts on Kaepernick and other players who kneeled, once saying at a rally that he wished an NFL owner would “get that son of a bitch off the field” if a player protested during the national anthem.
According to Geragos, one owner said — under oath during a deposition — that “he changed his mind [about Kaepernick] after he was told what Trump said.”
That owner is likely Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins. On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published a report on Trump’s influence on the NFL’s new national anthem policy which forces any player who is on the field during the national anthem to “stand and show respect” for the flag.
“I was totally supportive of [the players] until Trump made his statement,” Stephen Ross, the Miami Dolphins’ owner and creator of programs advocating for social justice, said in his deposition. Noting that owners’ conversations with Trump were relayed during a league meeting, he said: “I thought he changed the dialogue.”
But so what?
Even if all 32 owners came to the conclusion that Trump’s influence made signing Kaepernick a bullet not worth biting, that isn’t necessarily collusion. It could just be 32 teams making the same decision, just as they have with many other free agents who saw their NFL career end before they wanted it to.
To prove collusion, Geragos has to demonstrate that owners advised one another not to sign the quarterback.
Geragos may have another card to play. On CNN Wednesday, he suggested the case could soon take “a dramatic turn.” Geragos added, “somebody has decided they were going to dime out the NFL for what they were doing.”
Trump directly contacted a few owners
The Wall Street Journal’s report on Trump’s involvement said that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was among a group of owners who spoke to the president directly about the protests and an anthem policy.
“This is a very winning, strong issue for me,” Trump said in a phone call, according to a sworn deposition given by Jones and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”
A White House official said that Trump was advising Jones on what he believed would be good for the country and good for the sport. “The majority of the American people agree with the president, love our country, love our flag and believe it should be respected,” the official said.
That could prove an important part of the collusion case, because Geragos will try to show that the handful of owners contacted by Trump relayed the message to other owners and advised them not to sign Kaepernick.
Stephen Ross reportedly said as much in his deposition, testifying that both Jones and Patriots owner Robert Kraft relayed conversations they had with Trump during owner meetings, and that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was also influenced by the president.
“Let’s [not] give [Trump] that much credit,” Jones said in his deposition which happened before the new anthem policy was passed, via the Wall Street Journal. “But I recognize he’s the president of the United States.”
Could Trump be indicted/deposed?
During Geragos’ conversation with Amy Dash, the lawyer implied that action could be taken against Trump for violation of a statute that explicitly forbids influencing the NFL’s decision regarding Kaepernick.
“There’s a specific code section that says if you — for a political, partisan reason — take an action to affect somebody’s employment in the private sector that that is, not only a criminal offense, but actionable, as well.
“Under the plain language of the statute, clearly, both Trump and [Mike] Pence have violated it. Not only are they covered persons under the statute, but there is irrefutable evidence ... that it was done for partisan, political purposes. ‘Fire that son of a bitch’ was at a campaign rally.”
A week later, Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports reported that Kaepernick’s legal team will seek federal subpoenas to compel testimony from Trump, Pence, “and other officials familiar with the president’s agenda on protesting NFL players.”
But whether or not Trump could actually be brought in for testimony is still questionable, at best.
Other cases have already raised the question. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion raised a debate if anyone other than Congress can indict a sitting president, or if he can be subpoenaed to give a deposition. The question of deposing Trump was also raised in his legal battle with Stormy Daniels.
It could also be a situation where Geragos is being bullish about his chances and options in the collusion case. Going after Trump may be unrealistic for the Kaepernick and Reid camp, and likely isn’t a necessary part of their attempt to prove collusion. But even if they don’t land the big fish in Trump, any proof of the White House’s involvement could swing the case in Kaepernick’s favor.
NFL owners didn’t do themselves any favors in the collusion case last week, and the latest on Trump’s involvement indicates even more momentum in favor of Kaepernick and Reid.