In his long-overdue opportunity to workout for prospective employers, Kaepernick had the chance to change minds, to rewrite the narrative. He could have secured the ultimate victory over the league and owners who have blacklisted him for three years.
He had the chance to position himself to simultaneously shred both defenses and racist ideals while flexing on all those who wrote him off because he wasn’t afraid to take an unpopular political stand in 2016 by protesting during the national anthem.
But now, that opportunity very well could have evaporated.
With lingering emotional scars from nearly three years of exile from the league, Kaepernick couldn’t trust the setup presented to him this weekend in Atlanta. He sabotaged his opportunity and took another step further away from returning to the NFL. Worst of all, he lent further credence to those who have long suspected he never really was all that serious about playing again.
Kaepernick’s supporters will praise him for showing he does indeed still belong in this league. They’ll view him as heroic for staging his own workout. And they’ll accuse commissioner Roger Goodell of contriving a plan to embarrass Kaepernick and rid the NFL of this polarizing figure once and for all.
Meanwhile, critics will tell a far different version. They’ll accuse Kaepernick of hijacking the day to further command the spotlight. They’ll cluck their tongues and say, “I told ya so.”
But both views are far too simplistic and one-sided.
This was bad on both ends. There’s blame to go around.
The original workout should have never even been announced before both sides agreed to arrangements. It’s true that Goodell should have tried to fix this problem years ago. But it’s untrue that he viewed this weekend’s unprecedented workout as a way to put a final nail in the Kaepernick coffin.
Yes, Kaepernick’s name comes up every time a starter is injured or some mediocre passer throws an ugly interception. But Goodell didn’t need to rip this scab off again, especially during what’s supposed to be a special 100th season that’s already featured too much unflattering drama.
Were the terms and restrictions of the workout fair? Some, yes. Some, no. The league absolutely operated out of a double standard by denying Kaepernick’s request for media coverage to ensure transparency. Every February, the NFL rakes in the dough by allowing its own television network to broadcast the scouting combine. So what harm would cameras at the Falcons’ facility have done? None.
But be careful about buying the narrative that the language in the waiver presented to Kaepernick by the league was significantly different from any other rookie camp or free agent tryout waiver. Several people familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, say its wording is very similar to that of any of those other ones.
And if anyone thought that the league wouldn’t try to maintain control, then they were kidding themselves.
The league did get played, however. Even as a private workout, Saturday was all about Kaepernick. But, by design, he took the attention to another level.
Many people within the league — from NFL officials to team talent evaluators and current players — speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter told USA TODAY Sports they believe Kaepernick and his camp had no real intention of showing up at the Falcons’ facility for the 3 p.m. workout. They likely didn’t just decide at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday that they were going to hold the public workout approximately 60 miles away from the Falcons’ facility.
Kaepernick’s power move further fueled the school of thought that he’s more concerned with theatrics than football.
If Kaepernick truly wanted to showcase his skills to as many talent evaluators as possible, then his actions definitely didn’t indicate so. He inconvenienced the 20-plus NFL scouts who had already set up at Falcons headquarters and suddenly had to figure out how or if they should make the hour-plus-long trip to Charles Drew High School by 4 p.m. A handful did go there, but the majority bagged their plans. Hue Jackson, whom the NFL had appointed to run the original workout, left the Falcons’ facility and flew back home.
Multiple people within the league told USA TODAY Sports that in their opinion, Kaepernick cared more about showcasing his skills to his supporters than he did potential employers. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic. And these weren’t people with a grudge against Kaepernick. This was coming from men on different levels and branches of the league who wanted to see him back in the NFL.
Once the workout finally did take place, Kaepernick showed us what we knew all along: He possesses NFL-caliber talent, and he’s still in shape.
But Saturday’s NFL-arranged workout wasn’t so much supposed to be about the throws as it was about affording teams an opportunity to see Kaepernick check off a bunch of important boxes. Could he carry himself with flexibility and professionalism? Could he deal with pressure and renewed scrutiny? Could he handle pointed questions and present a well-devised plan for reviving his career? Could he take care of business with minimal fanfare?
Kaepernick failed that test. Now, who knows what’s next?
I do believe Kaepernick at least in part still wants to play — if it’s on his terms. The problem: Unless we’re self-employed, very few of us get to do our jobs on our very own terms. And even self-employed men and women have a certain code that they must adhere to.
Kaepernick doesn’t seem to get that, though.
It’s hard to envision Kaepernick making it back to the league now. It’s sad, because his off-field mission is righteous and his athleticism is special.
It’s tremendous that Kaepernick has given a voice to the racially and socially oppressed and that he spends his time educating people of color of their rights. He’s absolutely right to preach the need for members of law enforcement to be held accountable for abuses of power.
But Kaepernick’s methods have long made it hard for his critics to take him seriously. More importantly, NFL owners have always deemed Kaepnerick’s as too distracting. Saturday’s shenanigans were no different.
Essentially, Kapernick’s circus might have just cost him a job.