President Trump said at a Louisville rally that coaches aren't calling free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick because they "don't want to get a nasty tweet" from the president. (The Washington Post)

President Trump was in Louisville on Monday, attempting to rally some of his base for support of the Republican health care bill and other political initiatives. While speaking at an event that looked very much like a campaign stop, Trump indulged in a digression to address an athlete with whom he verbally sparred last year while running for the White House.

Trump didn’t mention Colin Kaepernick by name, but it was clear to whom he was referring when he pivoted from claiming that “our inner cities will find a rebirth of hope, safety and opportunity” to talking about “your San Francisco quarterback.”

“There was an article today, it was reported, that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump, do you believe that?” Trump said to a cheering crowd.

“I just saw that,” the president said, adding, “I said if I remember that one, I’m gonna report it to the people of Kentucky, because they like it when people actually stand for the American flag, right?”

Kaepernick became a lightning rod last season when he began kneeling during pregame renditions of the national anthem, while most other players and coaches stood, many holding their hands over hearts. The veteran quarterback explained that he was doing it to protest racial injustice in the United States, particularly the killings of black men by police. He had initially sat on the bench during anthems, but switched to kneeling after discussing the matter with a former Seahawks player and Green Beret, with whom he arrived at a “middle ground.”

Last season also saw Kaepernick restructure his contract with San Francisco in such a way as to give him an opt-out clause, one he exercised before free agency began in March. The article cited by Trump appears to be one written by Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman and published Friday, in which the longtime NFL reporter called the lack of interest in the still-unsigned quarterback “highly unusual.” Freeman got an explanation from an unidentified AFC general manager, who said that “three things are happening” with Kaepernick.

“First, some teams genuinely believe that he can’t play,” the GM said. “They think he’s shot. I’d put that number around 20 percent.

“Second, some teams fear the backlash from fans after getting him. They think there might be protests or Trump will tweet about the team. I’d say that number is around 10 percent. Then there’s another 10 percent that has a mix of those feelings.

“Third, the rest genuinely hate him and can’t stand what he did. They want nothing to do with him. They won’t move on. They think showing no interest is a form of punishment. I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did.”

Assuming that’s the passage to which Trump was referring, he appears to have omitted the part where the GM estimated that fear of a tweet from the president was a factor for about 10 percent of NFL teams, which would be three to four squads. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Kaepernick’s political views are limiting his potential suitors, considering his on-field upside.


Colin Kaepernick, center, kneels during the national anthem with then-teammates Eli Harold, left, and Eric Reid in October. (John G Mabanglo/EPA)

Kaepernick had led the 49ers to a Super Bowl after the 2012 season and to the NFC championship the following year, but his play deteriorated and he was benched in 2015. He began the 2016 season recovering from shoulder surgery before going 1-10 in 11 starts, but the 29-year-old put up respectable statistics, including throwing 16 touchdowns to four interceptions and attaining the league’s 17th best passer rating (90.7), while doing his usual damage on the ground (69 rushes for 468 yards and two touchdowns).

In addition, Kaepernick let it be known earlier this month that he will stand for the anthem this season, ending that form of protest.

However, several quarterbacks who figure to be poorer bets for good production this season have been signed, including two, journeyman Brian Hoyer and unproven Matt Barkley, by the 49ers, who went into the offseason with that position completely barren on their roster. Mike Glennon, a 27-year-old with far less experience than Kaepernick, little of the latter’s athleticism and worse numbers in significant categories such as passer rating (84.6 to 88.9) and yards per attempt (6.5 to 7.3), got a three-year, $45 million contract to start for the Bears.

Shortly before Trump’s speech, news emerged that Josh McCown, who will be 38 in July and has an 18-42 record in 60 career starts, was signed by the Jets. Of course, that team is owned by Woody Johnson, a major Republican donor who was tabbed to be the president’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, so he may well be anxious to avoid a critical tweet from Trump.

The back-and-forth between and Trump and Kaepernick began in December 2015, around the time the quarterback started increasing his social activism, posting Instagram messages critical of the then-candidate’s positions on Muslims, journalists and the threat of terrorists. Later that year, Trump called the anthem protests a “terrible thing,” saying, “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him. … Let him try. It won’t happen.”

Kaepernick eventually responded by saying, “That’s a very ignorant statement, that if you don’t agree with what’s going on here, and that if you want justice and liberty and freedom for all, that you should leave the country. He always says ‘Make America great again.’ Well, America’s never been great for people of color. And that’s something that needs to be addressed. Let’s make America great for the first time.”

One presumes that Kaepernick will eventually wind up on some NFL team; after all, this is the league that brought Michael Vick back into the fold after he was imprisoned for running a dogfighting ring and has seen fit to employ any number of domestic-violence offenders. On the other hand, could he be Canada-bound? TSN reported Monday that the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats had added Kaepernick, as well as another free agent quarterback, Robert Griffin III, to their negotiation list.

Seeing Kaepernick essentially banished for his protests would likely please Trump, who could crow that he had told the quarterback to go find another country. No matter how Kaepernick’s free agency plays out, it seems we can expect a high-profile tweet about it.