And all the while, there was little to no talk about protests by NFL players during the national anthem. When Goodell spoke with reporters, flanked by other league leaders, late Tuesday after the meeting broke up, he was not asked about Colin Kaepernick, the still-out-of-work quarterback who recently settled his collusion grievance against the league and owners.
That’s not all that surprising, given that the once-raging controversy over the protests faded this past season and that the league and the owners settled the collusion grievances by Kaepernick and his former San Francisco 49ers teammate, Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, for what is said to be less than $10 million. That figure was originally reported by the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by a person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings, who called that assessment “in the ballpark.” The settlement kept the grievances from going to a triallike hearing before an arbitrator.
Still, in the bigger picture, the quick retreat of the protests and Kaepernick from the front-and-center position they once occupied for the league, NFL fans and even the American public remains striking.
It became a polarizing national topic, far beyond the scope of sports, in the fall of 2017 when President Trump interjected himself into the debate with his sharp criticism of players who protested. The games became secondary for weeks afterward, as the league struggled to deal with the issue and with Trump’s broadsides. Speculation was rampant that the NFL’s then-declining TV ratings were linked to the protests. Some of those in and around the league were convinced that the controversy would continue to rage at least until Trump was out of office, given the reports that Trump was convinced the issue was a winning topic for him with his political base.
And then … nothing. Or, at least, next to nothing.
The 2018 season began and few players protested. Kaepernick, the quarterback who began the protest movement in 2016 by refusing to stand for the anthem before games, seeking to bring attention to racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans, was out of the league for a second straight season. There was an on-field skirmish last October involving Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins and Reid, who’d left the Jenkins-led Players Coalition that negotiated a deal with the league in 2017 by which the NFL and teams contribute funding to players’ community-activism ventures.
But, mostly, the volume was turned way down on the controversies and the public moved on. So, too, did Trump. The NFL was on its way to a feel-good season with entertaining on-field play and recovering TV ratings. By the time the owners met last October in New York, it was clear that the anthem-policy negotiations with the NFLPA had been all but forgotten and the league and owners would not revisit the topic unless forced to do so at some point by Trump or public outcry.
“Why would we ever come back to that?” a person with knowledge of the league’s and owners’ thinking said late last year.
This week in Phoenix, the league did hold a briefing for media members on its ongoing social-justice work with the players. But it was basically out of sight, out of mind when it came to the protests and Kaepernick.
Teams continue to pass over Kaepernick for quarterbacking vacancies. When his name came up recently in media speculation after the Miami Dolphins traded their former starter, Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins instead signed Ryan Fitzpatrick. On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bolstered their depth behind starter Jameis Winston by adding Blaine Gabbert, formerly Kaepernick’s teammate in San Francisco.
Kaepernick reportedly remains interested in a return to the NFL, but as each job opportunity comes and goes, the chances of such a return appear increasingly remote. Whenever Goodell was asked in the past about the allegation that the league and teams improperly conspired to keep Kaepernick out of the NFL, he denied collusion and said that individual teams made their own independent decisions based on what they believe will help them win games.
“I have no inside knowledge on anything,” an executive with one NFL team said this week. “I just know the odds don’t improve the longer it’s been since he played.”
Clearly, the NFL has moved on from the protests and the anthem-policy issues. More and more, it appears that it may have moved on from Kaepernick as well.