Three years after NFL team owners closed the doors of their franchises to Colin Kaepernick, the league’s former head of communications — who was often in the center of the storm — has asserted what many have long suspected: A kneeling Kaepernick was bounced from the NFL in 2017 because he was bad for business.
That’s one of the massive takeaways from the column written by CNN political analyst Joe Lockhart, who was the NFL’s vice president of communications when Kaepernick ignited a social justice movement that rippled through teams and shook the league’s ownership ranks.
In Lockhart’s own words from a column from early Saturday morning: “No teams wanted to sign a player — even one as talented as Kaepernick — whom they saw as controversial, and, therefore, bad for business.”
That line bears repeating once, twice or a thousand times because it forever puts a spate of intellectually dishonest and long-running canards to bed. So let’s stop and shout this for a moment, so everyone in the back can hear it:
Colin Kaepernick was not bounced by NFL team owners because of his skill. He was not bounced because of salary demands. And he was not bounced because he wanted a starting job. No, he was rejected by NFL team owners because he became a financial liability, kneeling for social justice and igniting a telling firestorm with President Donald Trump.
We can finally all be honest about that now. Colin Kaepernick lost his job forever because he became a wildly uncomfortable inflection point between franchise owners and players. He lost his job because he wouldn’t turn down the volume on his anger or rhetoric. And he lost his job because a segment of fans were furious about all of it, refused to listen to any of it, and never bothered to understand where it might be coming from.
Now a multitude of cities are burning at night following the death of George Floyd in custody of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. And what we’re seeing each day is a level of discord, exhaustion and outright defiance that comes from the very marrow of Kaepernick’s message. A message that might have been worth preserving in the league — or at least tolerating — if only for the fact that it was a window into a brand of pressure and dehumanization that has been building for years, if not decades or lifetimes.
That opportunity for the NFL was lost, arguably creating an even bigger platform for Kaepernick in the process. A platform that will only grow in these coming weeks, as Floyd’s fruitless pleas for his life echo in the public’s ear, leading a few people (and maybe many) to look back on the “why” behind Kaepernick’s kneeling. A “why” that was lied about, grossly distorted or simply used to fuel a political machine that is now falling into catastrophic failure as we near one of the most explosive elections in American history.
An election that will happen during another NFL season without Kaepernick, whose career has been buried to the point of no return.
At least now we can be honest about why it ended. When it comes to Kaepernick’s place in history, nothing will have been more jarring to the NFL’s public perception than Lockhart finally admitting what most right-minded people had long assumed. Because this isn’t some media voice pleading with the public to accept the obvious. And it’s not someone close to Kaepernick speaking on his behalf.
No, this is a former part of the NFL machine. A man who was in the middle of the communication nexus between the league office and ownership groups during the most turbulent moments of Kaepernick’s ultimate demise as an NFL player.
Lockhart was right in the middle of everything. And now he’s saying that despite years of the NFL insisting this wasn’t about Kaepernick’s financial impact on the league, it turns out that, well, that’s exactly what it was.
“[F]or many owners it always came back to the same thing,” Lockhart wrote. “Signing Kaepernick, they thought, was bad for business. An executive from one team that considered signing Kaepernick told me the team projected losing 20% of their season ticket holders if they did. That was a business risk no team was willing to take, whether the owner was a Trump supporter or a bleeding-heart liberal (yes, those do exist). As bad of an image problem it presented for the league and the game, no owner was willing to put the business at risk over this issue.”
That paragraph is the shattering of an omertà that has existed in the NFL for three long years.
What Lockhart wrote is not something you were supposed to admit if you held any level of power within the NFL. Whether it was commissioner Roger Goodell or team owners or coaches, it was a no-fly zone when it came to publicly mixing in the bottom line as a reason for not signing or even working out Kaepernick.
To say something like what Lockhart has asserted was akin to the president tweeting out his nuclear launch codes. It was an assurance of disaster. Not just legally — which was important to the NFL in the middle of a collusion case brought by Kaepernick — but also from a public relations standpoint, given that so many fans believed Kaepernick was being blackballed for his social justice protests.
In some respects, it's not surprising that Lockhart is the one to finally tell the unspoken side of the Kaepernick story that so many assumed. During his roughly three-year tenure as the head of the NFL's communications arm, he occasionally ran afoul of the party line, particularly when it came to the NFL's dicey standing with Trump. Lockhart's seemingly open disdain for Trump was pronounced enough that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has a known friendship with the president, said in his deposition during the Kaepernick grievance that he was "proud" to see Lockhart depart under pressure in 2018.
But Lockhart wasn't considered a "friendly" voice in the Kaepernick camp, either. Before the league settled its collusion case with Kaepernick, Lockhart was slated to be on the witness list — and it's expected he would have been asked if Kaepernick had lost his NFL job due to skill or politics. Given what Lockhart just wrote for CNN, that might even shed some additional light on why the league ultimately settled its case.
What Lockhart might have said is open for debate. But even in revealing the financial motivations of franchise owners shutting Kaepernick out, Lockhart remains generous toward the NFL’s executive branch and even himself. He submits that he thought the league office and Goodell had done a "righteous job" trying in vain to convince team owners to sign the quarterback.
“The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, and other league executives tried to persuade the teams to change their minds,” Lockhart wrote. “The league sent owners and players around the country to try to lead a dialogue on race relations and to move, as the sociologist and human rights activist Harry Edwards said, ‘from protest to progress.’ Though Kaepernick didn't get his job back, I thought we had all done a righteous job, considering.”
And then Lockhart delivers the kicker.
“I was wrong,” he wrote. “I think the teams were wrong for not signing him. Watching what’s going on in Minnesota, I understand how badly wrong we were.”
It’s a nice sentiment, and I appreciate Lockhart for sharing it. At the very least, it penetrates a lie that became infuriating over the years in its distortion and perpetuation. But it also comes three years too late. Too late for the innumerable dead black men and women who Kaepernick was speaking directly about long before they ultimately lost their lives. Too late for George Floyd, who died after taking a knee from a police officer. And too late for Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased down in the street by citizens and shot to death through a grotesque distortion of community policing empowerment.
Colin Kaepernick lost his NFL livelihood and platform because it’s not financially sound to protest a brand of evil that keeps getting thrust into the face of America through a camera lens. We can speak the truth about that now and know that someone who was in the middle of the machine has finally come clean about it.
In kneeling, Kaepernick was trying to represent the truth that eventually delivers us to where we are right now — with cities on fire and human beings overwhelmed by frustration. Ultimately, his protest and singular voice will be footnotes in a long and troubling history for America. But it’s the lying about the footnotes of history and the quelling of the singular voices that leads us to weeks like this.
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