Colin Kaepernick showed Saturday that he can do two things required for NFL success: throw a deep ball, and avoid Hue Jackson. Unfortunately, this probably does not bring him closer to getting an NFL job. Kaepernick’s workout for eight teams, and the chaos and mistrust that colored it, was like most of his three seasons out of the league: It was not about whether he can play football.
The league waited until Tuesday to tell Kaepernick it would host a workout for him Saturday, privately in Atlanta, on the league’s terms. He responded by waiting until Saturday to move the workout to another Atlanta location, on his terms, in front of the public, with cameras broadcasting it. What does this mean? Well, it means exactly what you want to believe it means.
If you think the league had bad motives here, then you also think you got confirmation. Kaepernick was not allowed to choose his workout partners. (The league asked Jackson to run it.) He was not allowed to broadcast video of his performance. Kaepernick has not trusted the league and its owners for a long time; he clearly worried that “league sources” would leak word that he wasn’t good enough. He believes he is good enough. And so he tried to control the workout. If you support Kaepernick, and think his blackballing was grossly unfair, then you probably love what he did.
And if you think Kaepernick puts social-justices causes ahead of his football career, then you can see that here, too. He had his chance to show he would do what it took to play in the NFL. Instead, he fought with the league. He wore a shirt that read “Kunta Kinte,” honoring a character from Alex Haley’s Roots. He let the media watch. If you dislike Kaepernick and think he just wanted publicity, then this probably confirmed that in your mind.
For what it’s worth: I do not think the NFL did this simply as a publicity stunt. I think there are some people in the NFL who want to sign Kaepernick or want somebody to sign him, if only to get rid of the blackballing talk. And I absolutely do not believe Kaepernick did this for publicity. He is not faking an interest in playing in the NFL. He really, truly wants to play.
If you wonder why Kaepernick made the choices he made Saturday, try putting yourself in his spot. In the last three years, he has lost the career he wanted since he was a kid, sued the league, and settled the lawsuit. But he also inspired millions of people by telling them to stand up for themselves and for what is right. It would only be natural for him to feel like he was representing all of them this week.
The problem is that there is such a deep mistrust between the NFL and Kaepernick’s camp. Sixty scripted throws could never overcome it. The mistrust is like the dispute between offensive tackle Trent Williams and the league’s Washington team in that way; at this point, anything anybody says will be viewed with extreme skepticism from the other side. The NFL did not want Kaepernick to set the terms, and so it set them itself. And as soon as the league did that, this whole thing was doomed.
Whatever you think of Kaepernick’s politics, let’s be clear: He was always good enough to play in the NFL. That was never the issue. NFL people understand this. There are undoubtedly worse quarterbacks on NFL rosters today. Lesser passers have started games in his absence. He was good enough three years ago and he is good enough today. We are not going to argue this point.
This isn’t about principle, either. NFL teams sign plenty of players who have committed serious crimes. It is about the perception of principle. Owners do not want customers complaining they signed Kaepernick.
Teams have just decided that signing Kaepernick isn’t worth the public-relations headache. I disagree, on multiple fronts. First, the headache would pass. Look around. There is a new media firestorm every day. Kaepernick’s signing would be a huge story, and everybody would talk about it, and then he would be another player. Protests would fade.
Within the locker room, Kaepernick would be fine. He has always been fine. Chip Kelly, his coach with the 49ers when he started kneeling during the anthem, has said very clearly that the team had no problems with Kaepernick. He is a model teammate with an excellent work ethic. And if you build an offense around him, even now, you at least have a chance to transform your team. How many street free agents offer that?
The NFL is a big league. It currently employs vocal Trump supporters and players who kneeled for the anthem. Players generally respect anybody who can play. Teams generally sign anybody who can help them. Kaepernick fits both descriptions, but this has gotten so out of hand that neither of those seems to matter.
And so executives walk away from this workout more convinced than ever that Kaepernick doesn’t really want to play. Kaepernick walks away knowing he does—but knowing he probably won’t get a chance. Colin Kaepernick showed Saturday that he can still play football. That has not mattered for a long, long time.