Colin Kaepernick spent six years in the NFL displaying his abilities and the three years since his ouster arguing with the league over whether his abilities should still merit him a job.
That dispute was as alive as ever on Saturday evening, when he addressed about 100 reporters and friends at a high school stadium outside Atlanta. He had just held a hastily rearranged tryout in front of a handful of team scouts and tens of thousands of others watching online, a vastly different audience than the NFL had originally planned for.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said in a 90-second speech. “We’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running, running from the truth, stop running from the people.” Kaepernick did not take questions from reporters.
The most salient truth appears to include this fact: After all the drama and hype of the past week, Kaepernick and the NFL still do not trust each other. A 32-year-old quarterback who has repeatedly said he wants to play football still wants to do so on his own terms in a league that doesn’t take well to such players.
And so Saturday’s fiasco ended with both sides digging their heels in on principles and very few football questions being resolved. The league and Kaepernick bickered over when the tryout would be held, who would videotape it, who could watch it and even the liability waivers he would have to sign.
Then, at the 11th hour, with two dozen scouts waiting for the quarterback at the Falcons facility an hour north of Atlanta, Kaepernick announced he would hold his own workout an hour’s drive in the opposite direction.
The details of the take-it-or-leave-it tryout the league arranged for Kaepernick last week are just the latest example of how toxic their relationship has become. His skills, which have been debated endlessly for three years, were still “impressive,” according to one of the scouts who watched his workout Saturday.
Yet after Kaepernick’s on-the-record statement to gathered press, several highly placed NFL sources who requested anonymity raised questions about whether Saturday’s late changes were more about perpetuating the quarterback’s brand as the man who continues to pay the price for protesting on behalf of black people.
That cynicism regarding the quarterback’s intentions was echoed by two previously ardent Kaepernick supporters.
“He don’t want to play, he wants to be a martyr,” Stephen A. Smith, the ESPN television personality who supported Kaepernick’s desire to return to the NFL since he became a free agent in 2017, said in a video he posted to Twitter. “But guess what, it ain’t working this time.”
Jay-Z, the music impresario who nudged Commissioner Roger Goodell to extend the league’s thorny olive branch, is now disappointed that Kaepernick skipped the NFL workout, according to a person who has spoken directly with Jay-Z.
At least two teams had serious interest in pursuing Kaepernick if he performed well at the NFL tryout on Saturday, according to a person close to the league officials. After Kaepernick challenged the terms of the workout, interest from those teams evaporated, that person said. A total of eight teams were represented at the outdoor workout.
It is not hard to see why the NFL might still want to wash its hands of Kaepernick and why Kaepernick might not leave his football future to the league’s opaque designs. The quarterback filed a grievance accusing the NFL and its 32 teams of colluding to keep him out, and in February paid Kaepernick several million dollars to settle the case.
So the tug-of-war between the NFL and Kaepernick continues, to the dismay of anyone hoping for a resolution. There seems to be no precedent for this kind of showdown, according to Upton Bell, who has watched the NFL for three-quarters of a century, dating to when his father, Bert Bell, owned the Philadelphia Eagles and was the league’s commissioner.
Bell has seen the league grapple with gambling scandals, doping epidemics, contract disputes, on-field violence, labor strife, and more. But he has never seen a standoff like this.
“I have been watching the NFL for 74 years,” Bell wrote. “This might be one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen. It’s slapstick comedy.”
But, he added, it would only be funny “if it wasn’t in its own way a serious issue.”