Colin Kaepernick’s nearly two-year collusion case against the NFL and its team owners is over, at least formally. On Friday, Kaepernick and former 49ers teammate Eric Reid agreed to a settlement with the league.
The agreement was a conclusion that worked for both sides. The NFL paid to keep the league’s inner workings under wraps, avoiding any potential admission of guilt for a price the league could live with — though not a small amount. Insiders pegged the payment, which is undisclosed under the settlement’s confidentiality agreement, to Kaepernick alone at between $60 and $80 million.
Reid and Kaepernick were granted more than restitution. Even if collusion was neither proven nor disproven, they at least earned a sliver of validation that their complaints — that the league was working against them to prevent their employment due to their political views and demonstrations during the national anthem — held merit.
The settlement closes a tumultuous chapter in Kaepernick’s career and allows him to move on with his life. The question now is, what happens to the NFL’s most visible activist? With his collusion complaint against the league settled and Reid firmly entrenched with the Panthers, where does the veteran quarterback go from here?
Kaepernick isn’t likely to be signed in 2019 — and probably beyond
The former 49ers quarterback is no longer embroiled in a legal battle with the NFL. Theoretically, that makes him easier for teams to justify signing. Kaepernick’s attorney, Mark Geragos, told CNN that Kaepernick “absolutely wants to play” and even said he believed that one of three teams — including the Panthers or Patriots — would bring him in.
Yet, it’s still difficult to see any team jumping at the opportunity.
Kaepernick was a capable starting quarterback for San Francisco as a low-risk dual-threat passer who helped engineer the team’s Super Bowl appearance during the 2012 season. While he shared snaps with Blaine Gabbert and went 1-10 as a starter for a rebuilding 2-14 team in 2016, he also recorded a 16:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 90.7 passer rating — the latter strong enough to rank 17th in the league.
But even as Gabbert went on to another job and quarterbacks like Nathan Peterman and Trevor Siemian would earn opportunities to start for NFL teams, Kaepernick hasn’t played a snap since New Year’s Day 2017. He has had no offers, despite his performance in his last season behind center proving he still has what it takes to play in the NFL.
His decision to kneel during the national anthem made him a divisive figure almost immediately. Beginning in the preseason of 2016, Kaepernick either sat on the bench or kneeled during “The Star-Spangled Banner” before each game, as a way to protest the oppression of people of color in the United States and ongoing issues with police brutality.
“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” Kaepernick said that August. “To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
His actions soon became a powder keg of debate. President Donald Trump lobbed personal attacks at Kaepernick throughout his presidential campaign and into his presidency. The NFL enacted, then rescinded, a policy revolving around player conduct during the anthem last year. And while the conflict over whether players should be forced to stand has died down to embers, Kaepernick’s return would almost certainly fan those flames back to life.
Nike’s choice to feature him as the face of a new advertising campaign furthered the divide between his supporters and detractors and led to a handful of entirely unsuccessful boycotts of the brand’s products.
We saw what even the mention of his name is capable of creating in Kaepernick’s home state this very month. Lawmakers in Wisconsin rejected a resolution recognizing Black History Month because the 31-year-old quarterback was listed among the honored African-Americans with local roots. The legislation, typically a formality in state-level politics, was only approved after Kaepernick had been removed.
That means any team signing Kaepernick would put itself in the middle of a media firestorm shared millions and millions of times over on social media. If none of these teams were willing to trade their Facebook likes for a quarterback upgrade in 2017 or 2018 with the threat of collusion staring them in the face, it’s unlikely that will change now the case is settled.
Kaepernick will have to compete with a deep QB market
Although Kaepernick would be one of the more talented available free agents, there’s no glut of veteran quarterbacks available to fill roster spots this spring. Several passers are slated for free agency, including Tyrod Taylor, Nick Foles, and Teddy Bridgewater. More could be released as the draft approaches, like Case Keenum, Eli Manning, Ryan Tannehill, and Blake Bortles.
There are also several soon-to-be rookie quarterbacks who are projected as first-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, such as Ohio State stud Dwayne Haskins and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. This is a buyer’s market for quarterback help, and teams across the league can find a player capable of giving them 80 percent of Kaepernick’s production (or better) while earning them 0 percent of the controversy, deserved or not.
Kaepernick, at his best, would be one of the top options of that group. He has reportedly remained in game shape during his hiatus:
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I've been training @kaepernick7 everyday and to say he's dedicated is an understatement. Each day we hit the gym and put in work! We haven't stopped throwing, training and preparing since January of 2017. Even when we’re traveling we put in that work #nevertired #imwithkap
However, it’s impossible to simulate the Sunday experience in workouts, and his two years away from the game would be a concern. He reportedly turned down an offer to play in the Alliance of American Football, which may have more to do with a league where his competition consists of Christian Hackenberg than anything else (Tim Tebow also, reportedly, turned down an offer from the fledgling league). A top-20 NFL quarterback shouldn’t have to resort to the AAF at age 31 — especially not when 32-year-old Josh Johnson, who hadn’t thrown a pass in the regular season since 2011, was signed by Washington this past December.
In addition, the league’s ability to accommodate mobile quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen suggests there would be a place for Kaepernick if teams weren’t scared off by his activism and any backlash that followed.
Kaepernick’s sacrifice is still meaningful
While there was no official ruling and the curtain wasn’t pulled back on the league’s owners, the settlement is a win for Kaepernick. A confidentiality agreement will protect the NFL, but a potential nine-figure settlement strongly suggests the former 49ers pair had a case. This was a costly lesson for the league, and it should lead to change — even if that change doesn’t come with a public declaration.
Players like Reid, Albert Wilson, and Kenny Stills can feel more comfortable in their choice to kneel or raise a fist to bring awareness to issues of injustice. Teammates can join them, a little more secure in the idea they won’t waste years of their money-making primes in limbo while owners decide whether or not they can sign a player who might speak out. Now commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners know they can’t feign ignorance in a similar situation — and that’s a good thing for players and the NFL.
But Kaepernick may never play another down in the NFL, an unfair outcome and one he always knew was possible.
“If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right,” Kaepernick said back in 2016 before his demonstrations became the argument everyone and no one was willing to have.
Kaepernick’s action brought attention to the causes he championed, from fighting hunger to founding Know Your Rights Camp. He’s been prolific with his charitable donations throughout his career. He spent most of 2017 donating $1 million to different causes, and that fails to cover the extent of his work helping others and the impact he’s had.
Furthering Kaepernick’s legacy is that he opened up a dialogue that prompted the NFL to pursue social justice initiatives aimed at strengthening communities, and eventually led to millions pledged to equality efforts.
At this year’s Super Bowl, his social justice efforts were prominent all week, even at league-sanctioned events.
His message went beyond two rarely broadcasted minutes before each game and made him a modern symbol of resistance. In that, he did something greater than football.