Culture

Kaepernick’s Collusion Claim Is a Likely Loser

Colin Kaepernick throws a pass during a game against the New York Jets in December 2016. (Photo: Kelly L. Cox/USA TODAY Sports)
He’s not good enough to require collusion against him.

If you’re going to do Muhammad Ali–type activism, you’d better have Muhammad Ali–type talent. That is the ultimate lesson of the Colin Kaepernick saga.

The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who has been without a team this season, announced this week that he will file a grievance against the NFL. Collusion, he claims, can be the only explanation for his unemployment: The league and its owners, fueled by President Trump’s “partisan political provocation,” have schemed to blackball him in violation of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the players’ union.

Kaepernick appears to be within his CBA rights to file the grievance, and to do so personally — i.e., to challenge the league and its owners on his own, rather than through the NFL Players Association. But unless some of the owners and league officials have said or written idiotic things in meetings, emails, text messages, and the like, the collusion suit should be a loser. There is no need to collude against a player who is not an obvious net-plus (in terms of performance and popularity) for any particular team.

To take the easy part first, Kaepernick’s invocation of Trump is just an atmospheric. The player had been out of the league for months before the president recently began inveighing against the form of protest Kaepernick initiated — “taking a knee” during the pregame playing of the national anthem. No player has been cut or suspended in the wake of the presidential outbursts, which markedly increased the number of players protesting. Trump has crystallized the public anger over the protest as only his bully pulpit can, but he has had no impact on the status of Kaepernick or any other player.

So let’s talk Colin Kaepernick.

To be clear, as a lifelong football fan (who continues to love the game, however soured I am over the infusion of leftist activism in what used to be an oasis from politics), I can attest: Kaepernick is certainly good enough to make an NFL roster — or at least he was when last seen on the gridiron. His problem is that he is not a great player. Indeed, he is now a mediocre player. Mediocre players cannot afford to have his kind of baggage.

I happen to have been in the stands to see Kaepernick’s first pro touchdown, scored against my New York Jets (a streak of lightning captured in this YouTube clip, a minute and a half in). He was a dynamic but flawed talent when he burst on the NFL scene as the 49ers’ second-round pick out of the University of Nevada in 2011: a breathtaking runner with a strong arm, though not a particularly accurate one. In his rookie year, he was used sparingly (almost exclusively in running situations) by coach Jim Harbaugh. But the Niners were an excellent team (they got to but lost the NFC championship game in Kaepernick’s first season), and Harbaugh — a former pro QB — ran a system maximally suited to Kaepernick’s strengths.

Kaepernick got his break when the starter, Alex Smith, got injured in 2012. He made the most of it, getting the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens despite his capable performance. The next year, as the undisputed starter, Kaepernick led the Niners to the conference championship game again, but they lost to the Seattle Seahawks, no small thanks to two killer interceptions Kaepernick threw in crunch time.

His problem is that he is not a great player. Indeed, he is now a mediocre player. Mediocre players cannot afford to have his kind of baggage.

Still, he had had an impressive run of success. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the high-water mark of his career. Kaepernick was rewarded with a big contract. As with many big NFL contracts, the dollar amount, $126 million over six years, sounds impressive. Only $13 million was guaranteed, though. In such deals, if the player fails to perform up to standard, he runs a high risk of being cut. The high per annum pay counts against the team’s salary cap if the team decides to keep the player at the contract rate. (That’s why football players can be pressured to accept salary cuts, something that never happens in, say, Major League Baseball, where the money is guaranteed throughout multi-year contract terms.)

Alas, 2014 was a stormy year: Kaepernick struggled and the team finished 8–8, missing the playoffs for the first time in many years. Harbaugh had a falling out with Niners brass, ultimately moving on to the University of Michigan, his alma mater (and Jay Nordlinger’s!). The 49ers have been a mess ever since.

The next year, 2015, was a disaster for Kaepernick, who played poorly, was benched, and eventually missed most of the second half of the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. The Niners collapsed, finishing 5–11, and the new coach was fired.

The 2016 season, during which Kaepernick began his kneeling protest, was even worse: Kaepernick was a second-stringer on a team that finished an NFL-worst 2–14. Signs of a lost season were in the air before it even started: Kaepernick expressed an interest in being traded after the 49ers hired Chip Kelly. This is consistent with Kaepernick’s activism: On Kelly’s prior team, the Philadelphia Eagles, LaSean McCoy, a star African-American player who had been traded, slanderously claimed Kelly had gotten rid of “all the good black players” on the Eagles. By mid-season, Kaepernick had reworked his contract, with the 49ers allowing him to opt out and become a free agent. Meanwhile, the season went so badly that the Niners fired Kelly.

With a new regime coming in to run the team, Kaepernick formally opted out of his contract. This, however, was a mutual decision between player and team. New general manager John Lynch explained that Kaepernick would have been cut had he not exercised his option to leave. If the Niners had kept him, he would have been owed at least $14.5 million, a price far too steep for a non-starter. Moreover, the new coach, Kyle Shanahan, runs a passing offense for which Kaepernick is not a good fit. That partially explains the 49ers’ use of a fairly high draft pick (third round) to take another quarterback, the University of Iowa’s highly touted passer, C. J. Beathard. The Niners clearly figured that Kaepernick would not have gotten playing time and would not be worth keeping — even in the unlikely event that they could talk him into a gigantic pay cut.

The big issue: Even at his best, Kaepernick was a running quarterback in a passing league. The modern rules make pass defense very difficult and thus advantage teams that read defenses well and throw the ball down the field. Kaepernick is not inept in these areas, but they have never been his strengths.

Many teams shy away from running QBs even when they are young. On the defensive side of the ball, the step up in speed from the college game to the NFL is drastic. Run-first QBs who are collegiate sensations, as Kaepernick was, are living on borrowed time in the pro game. They get hit constantly, under circumstances where a single hit can cause an injury that markedly diminishes the quarterback’s future effectiveness as a runner (if it doesn’t end his career outright). Unlike pocket passers with high accuracy (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, et al.), running QBs tend to decline dramatically, often in a matter of just a few seasons, as defenses adjust to them, cut off their running lanes, make them play to their weaknesses, and continue to pound them.

That is what happened to Kaepernick. By the time he became a free agent this year, he had already deteriorated. He has not been a productive player since 2013. He has not been a regular starting player for three years, and when he has played — in the most consequential position in the game — the results have been awful. He has had a significant injury. And atop all these performance problems, Kaepernick has had no preseason and no playing time this year, with the league now entering the season’s seventh week. Any team that considered signing him would have to factor in his unfamiliarity with the offensive system the team is running. (Pro football teams run very complex offenses, with multiple reads, keys and shifts that change play-to-play depending on what the defense does, and different signals and verbiage that vary from team to team. Even experienced quarterbacks need lots of time to master them.)

All that said, Kaepernick is probably still better than many of the second-string quarterbacks in the league. He may even be better than the starters on some bad teams.

Yet, particularly at this point in his career, he is a marginal player at best. That makes his baggage a huge problem for him. And make no mistake: It is major baggage. As I noted in a recent column, left-leaning sports journalists strain to swaddle Kaepernick’s protest exhibitionism in the nobility of a quest to stamp out racism and inequality; the players, we are told, mean no disrespect to the rites and symbols of nationhood — the anthem, the flag. Kaepernick, to the contrary, has been bracingly direct: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The protesters confusingly claim that they are animated by police brutality but really like the police; Kaepernick, by contrast, does not mince words: “There are bodies on the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The quarterback is certainly entitled to his opinions and his activism. But the right to speak is not the right to public approbation.

Sports is an entertainment business. If the pleasure of the diversion is outweighed by aggravation, the fan finds other diversions on which to spend his time and money. That is not a theory. It is reality, and the NFL is seeing it play out weekly in sagging attendance, television ratings, and merchandise purchases. The league is a private business; it is not the government and is not obliged by the First Amendment to permit offensive speech. By not stopping Kaepernick from his offensive demonstration, the NFL endorsed it — or at least lent its megaphone to his deeply divisive message even as it denied other messages (including those supportive of police). No sensible fan questions the NFL’s right to allow this behavior, but neither should the league and its protesting millionaire players question the fans’ equal right to “take a knee” against the NFL’s product.

The quarterback is certainly entitled to his opinions and his activism. But the right to speak is not the right to public approbation.

That said, everything is relative. What most draws people to professional football is greatness — the sheer skill of these gifted athletes, especially when it translates into wins for the home team. If Colin Kaepernick were Aaron Rodgers (before his injury last weekend) or Tom Brady, he would be starting for some NFL team. Many fans would dislike him intensely, even more than they dislike the protesters who’ve imitated him. But on balance, many teams would calculate that their fan base would be more excited by the performance and the winning than angry about the protest (especially if the NFL put its foot down and ended the protests).

Kaepernick is not out of the league because the owners have colluded against him. In fact, putting San Francisco aside, there are other NFL cities (Oakland and Seattle, to take two of what are probably several) in which the fan base is not very agitated over the protests. It is entirely possible that some team in need of a capable back-up QB will give Kaepernick a chance to make the squad — probably not this year, but next — if his skills have not further degenerated and he is willing to play for far less money than he once commanded.

But the refrain that there must be collusion against Kaepernick because he is better than many other average or below-average quarterbacks is asinine. Mediocre players are a dime a dozen. A team puts up with the baggage of a star player because the upside is worth it. By contrast, mediocre players are not critical to the team. They play only if injury or lack of better players leaves it with no good alternatives, and there is no expectation that they will perform very well. Consequently, one mediocre player will be only marginally preferable to another. Bluntly, that means a less-skilled player who portends no drama is more valuable to a team than a mediocre player with better skills but significant baggage.

Colin Kaepernick is no longer on an NFL roster because he is a shell of the player he once was. It has been years since he showed he could help a team win, and he is now a major turn-off to a large percentage of football fans. Notoriously, the billionaires who own NFL teams routinely turn a blind eye to grotesque misconduct — or wash it away with a nominal suspension — if it involves star players. Mediocre players do not get that treatment. That is not due to collusion. No one need conspire to exclude someone who is not worth the trouble.

READ MORE:

Why Colin Kaepernick’s Protest Failed

For the Separation of Stadium and State

Politicize Sports, Pay the Price

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