What Was the NFL Trying to Achieve With Its Bizarre Colin Kaepernick Workout Plan?

Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick at Charles R. Drew High School outside of Atlanta on Saturday. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

As a football exercise, Colin Kaepernick’s workout went well. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback last played in the NFL during the 2016 season, but he looked good on Saturday during a 40-minute session at Charles R. Drew High School just outside of Atlanta.

His layoff was never about football, though. The league’s 32 franchises have essentially blackballed Kaepernick because he sparked a protest movement by kneeling during pregame performances of the national anthem, and Saturday’s “tryout” worked only to highlight the absurdity of the past three years.

It’s difficult to overstate just how bizarre the NFL’s actions have been regarding this Kaepernick throwing session. On Tuesday, league officials contacted the quarterback’s agent and offered him the chance to work out in front of scouts at the Atlanta Falcons training facility. This is odd for a number of reasons. For one thing, individual teams invite players to do this literally every single week. It’s a common practice, and these sessions are always held on Tuesdays because things tend to get rather busy during the weekends, what with the playing of professional football games and all. Even weirder is that the NFL gave Kaepernick just two hours to decide whether he would make the trip. After keeping him in the cold for three years, time was suddenly of the essence for the NFL.

Nothing has prevented any of the league’s 32 teams from inviting Kaepernick to participate in normal workouts, and their blanket refusal helped inform an official grievance the quarterback filed against the league in 2017. That particular dispute came to an end in February, and the NFL agreed to pay Kaepernick a settlement worth between $1 million and $10 million.

While Kaepernick agreed to participate on Saturday (and did so within that arbitrary two-hour window), disputes soon arose between his camp and the NFL. League officials reportedly rescinded their offer to provide a list of team officials who were planning to attend. On the day of the workout, it was announced that cameras—including Kaepernick’s own video crew—would not be allowed inside the Falcons’ facility and that the NFL would be providing video of the session after the fact. The NFL also asked Kaepernick sign a waiver that his attorneys described as “unusual.” He declined.

So Kaepernick moved the workout to Charles R. Drew High School. Officials from 25 teams showed up to watch Kaepernick at the Falcons’ facility, but only representatives for eight made the trip to the new venue, about an hour away. “I’ve been prepared for three years, I’ve been denied for three years and you all know why,” Kaepernick told reporters after the session. “I’ve been ready. I’m staying ready.”

It’s fair to say that no one came away satisfied from Saturday’s workout. Kaepernick got to remind everyone of his undeniable talent, but, as he said, he could have done this at any point over the past three years. The teams (at least the ones that actually attended the session) had an opportunity to look at a skillful quarterback during a point in the season when all their rosters are more or less solidified. The only real winners were the airlines, who got to sell last-minute round-trip tickets to everyone who had to rush to meet the NFL’s whims.

ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio obtained the three-page waiver the NFL had asked Kaepernick to sign, and he found some of its language to be peculiar. Florio, who practiced labor law, zeroed in on one specific paragraph ostensibly related to injury liability. He argued that it could be used as “a silver bullet that would defeat from the get go any claims for collusion or retaliation related to Kaepernick’s ongoing unemployment from the moment his February settlement agreement was signed through and beyond the November 16 workout.”

As Florio notes, disputes over contract language are remarkably common, and this could have easily been cleared up after a quick back-and-forth between the two parties. But the NFL presented the waiver late in its already hurried process and left Kaepernick and his team with almost no time to address their concerns.

It’s unclear why the NFL decided to offer this workout in the first place. Roger Goodell could have genuinely wanted to extend an olive branch, even if it was only to make himself look better. Some reports suggest that Jay-Z, who took heat for establishing a business partnership with the league this year, pressured the commissioner out of concern for his own reputation. And then there’s Florio’s theory, which is that the NFL wanted to put Kaepernick into “checkmate” by having him sign a waiver that would protect it from further legal action.

But the reason doesn’t matter—the NFL’s rushed, sloppy plan was doomed to fail. It has spent three years pretending that Kaepernick couldn’t play football, and that laughable pretense unraveled with just 40 minutes of him throwing passes on a high school field. The only solution is the one the NFL refuses to entertain: treat Colin Kaepernick like a normal football player.