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Colin Kaepernick had a quiet ally in Roger Goodell, but his NFL tryout still unraveled

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest during the national anthem, is trying to get back in the game with an NFL workout held Nov. 16. (Video: Reuters)
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For the past three years, as Colin Kaepernick remained unsigned after kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and social injustice, the exiled quarterback had an unlikely advocate: Roger Goodell. While Kaepernick waited for an NFL team to call, the commissioner was encouraging teams to consider him, according to multiple people familiar with his actions.

“There’s not a month that’s passed where Roger hasn’t talked to some owner, somewhere, about, ‘Hey, there’s a quarterback out there that you could use,’ ” said University of California sociology professor Harry Edwards, a friend and unofficial adviser to Goodell. “But he doesn’t hire anybody. He doesn’t draft anybody. He doesn’t sign anybody. He doesn’t put anybody on a roster. He serves at the sufferance of 32 owners, who themselves are at all kinds of disagreement about all kinds of issues.”

Last weekend, Goodell watched his league’s most public effort to land Kaepernick an opportunity unravel. The NFL invited every team to the Atlanta Falcons’ training facility in Flowery Branch, Ga., to watch Kaepernick work out, an unprecedented leaguewide tryout for a free agent. After 25 of 32 franchises sent representatives, Kaepernick and his camp cited suspicions about the NFL’s intent and, 28 minutes before the 3 p.m. scheduled start, canceled the workout and announced his own showcase would take place an hour later at Charles R. Drew High in Riverdale, Ga., about 60 miles to the south.

Seven or eight teams watched him throw 60 passes, showing off a powerful arm and chiseled body, assets that were hardly in doubt. Yet Kaepernick appears no closer to signing with an NFL club.

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Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose team did not send a representative, told a Dallas radio station the workout “wasn’t about football” and called the result unfortunate.

“Surprisingly, I tend to agree with Jerry Jones,” said Kaepernick’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, in a phone interview. “It appeared to be a publicity stunt or a way to insulate [the NFL] from another collusion grievance from the get-go, which is what Jerry Jones seemed to imply.”

The workout saga both reopened and reflected the unresolved fissures between Kaepernick and the NFL. Kaepernick found himself barred from the league, out of work through teams’ inaction that amounted to, in his supporters’ view, a blackballing through improper collective consensus. Along with former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid, who knelt alongside him during the national anthem, Kaepernick filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, a case the sides settled in February.

The distrust flared Nov. 16 and led to the undoing of the NFL’s showcase. The sides are still at odds about myriad issues, from the fairness of the workout’s timing to how video of the event would be distributed to language in the waiver the NFL wanted Kaepernick to sign. The workout Kaepernick held instead has done little, at least so far, to change his status.

Edwards, who for more than 50 years has worked on issues at the convergence of sports and society and who helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967, has been one of the voices Goodell has listened to throughout the Kaepernick controversy. A paid consultant for the 49ers, Edwards supports and admires Kaepernick; after the quarterback first refused to stand for the anthem in 2016, Edwards requested his shoes and jersey so he could send them to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He suggested he played a key role in shaping Goodell’s thinking.

“If people should be p----- at anybody, it shouldn’t be Roger Goodell,” Edwards said. “It probably should be me. When I told Roger that this thing could end up as a debacle or even a disaster — which is what it ended up as — he was going to take a lot of heat from all sides, Roger’s response was, and I’m quoting him directly, ‘I am willing to take the heat because this is the right thing to do.’

“If it had been up to Roger,” Edwards continued, “Colin never would have been out of the league.”

For whatever influence Goodell attempted to assert, he was not publicly forceful, however, and any attempt to convince an owner to sign — or even work out — Kaepernick ultimately failed.

A story line returns

The NFL’s invitation for Kaepernick seemingly came out of nowhere this month, dredging up a story line that many in the league had been happy to see fade.

But Kaepernick’s unemployment, according to Edwards and a former league executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity, had weighed on Goodell. In June 2017, as Kaepernick’s first training camp as a free agent approached, Edwards sensed the looming danger to the league if he remained unsigned. He sent Goodell an email imploring the commissioner to use his influence to bring Kaepernick back into the league, telling him Kaepernick would become a “martyr” and his “banishment” would remain a dominant topic in the league until he signed.

The league did not respond to requests for comment by Goodell. But according to people familiar with his thinking, the commissioner came to believe it would be better for the NFL if Kaepernick was on a team. Disagreement formed within the league. Some departments in the league office viewed Kaepernick skeptically, unsure he truly wanted to play again, according to a person familiar with the situation.

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“There’s a pretty deep distrust between the league office and Kaepernick’s people,” said the former league executive, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could discuss the issue openly. “The person I would exclude from that would be Roger. My sense in watching it back [in 2017] was Roger thought it would be a good thing if somebody signed him.”

The former league executive said he witnessed Goodell call owners of teams in need of a quarterback to gently suggest they give Kaepernick a workout. Goodell’s stance came from his belief that the league was better off with Kaepernick signed, as opposed to any altruistic motivations, the former executive said. His message would be along the lines of, “You should consider working him out and potentially signing him.”

“He didn’t say, ‘You need to do this,’ ” the former league executive said. “He would never do that. That’s not Roger’s style.”

Geragos seemed to express doubt that Goodell would have attempted to influence a team but declined to elaborate, citing a protective order stemming from the collusion grievance.

This fall, multiple factors moved Goodell toward a more proactive tack. Three months ago, the league added a new partner, Roc Nation, the entertainment agency founded by rapper Jay-Z, to help promote its social justice initiatives. Jay-Z had once worn a No. 7 Kaepernick jersey and dedicated a song to Kaepernick onstage. Multiple people close to the league said they were uncertain to what degree Jay-Z influenced Goodell’s decision to organize the workout in Georgia, but Edwards and others said his voice mattered.

In October, Kaepernick’s agent, Jeff Nalley, issued a two-page news release titled “Facts to Address the False Narratives Regarding Colin Kaepernick.” The league office took it as affirmation that Kaepernick still wanted to play.

On the field, the game has tilted toward Kaepernick’s skill set. Leading MVP candidates Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson play a style similar to Kaepernick’s. A raft of quarterbacks suffered injuries, leading to players with lesser credentials than Kaepernick receiving tryouts and joining teams.

At least two teams reached out to the NFL this fall interested in the 32-year-old quarterback but unsure how to proceed, confused in part by whether the settlement affected his status. In the face of such uncertainty, the workout allowed the NFL to show that Kaepernick was available to be signed.

On Nov. 12, an NFL official called Nalley to inform him of an extraordinary plan: The league would arrange a tryout for all 32 teams outside Atlanta on Nov. 16.

From the start, however, the NFL and Kaepernick were at odds.

Kaepernick’s camp was miffed that, after three years of the quarterback going unsigned, the NFL gave him just five days to prepare for a workout and travel to Georgia. The NFL didn’t view a Saturday workout announced on Tuesday as too hasty; teams that need reinforcements after game-day injuries typically call free agents on a Monday to fly in for a Tuesday tryout.

Still, Kaepernick flew to Atlanta on Thursday, about 40 hours after the NFL notified his representatives.

“Why would he go to Atlanta if he was trying to get a publicity stunt?” Geragos said. "He was trying to get work. He wants to be on the field. … I’ve been around him for a couple years now, and he’s as competitive as one could imagine. He’s a competitive guy who feels he’s at the top of his game.”

The sides continued to bicker about details. Kaepernick’s camp said the league agreed to provide a list of attendees, but a person familiar with the NFL’s view said the league did not. The NFL assumed the workout would be private, like typical free agent tryouts. Kaepernick’s side said it wanted transparency, and the NFL said it heard Kaepernick wanted media to be present for the first time just hours before the workout was scheduled to begin. Kaepernick didn’t trust the NFL to control film of the workout; the NFL ultimately agreed to let a representative from his camp join the Falcons’ video staff as it filmed the workout.

On the night of Nov. 15, according to an NFL official, Nike sent an ad to the league office for approval, which Nike needed because it included team names. Kaepernick has an endorsement deal with the shoe and athletic apparel company. The ad, a copy of which The Washington Post obtained, was a letter written by Kaepernick as a fourth-grader professing his dream to play for the 49ers or Green Bay Packers. Nike added an addendum, dated Nov. 16, 2019 — the day of the workout — that said “or," followed by the other 30 team names.

A matter of distrust

As those on both sides have continued to deconstruct what led Kaepernick to decline to participate in the NFL’s workout, the focus largely has been on the waiver that the league sought to have Kaepernick sign. Geragos called the disagreements plus the language of the waiver “a recipe for disaster.”

The NFL called it a standard workout waiver. Kaepernick’s representatives said the waiver contained language, troubling to them, related to Kaepernick’s employment status. That was significant, in their view, after Kaepernick reached a settlement this year in the collusion grievance he had filed against the NFL and its teams, accusing them of improperly conspiring to keep him out of the league in violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

Neither side has budged from its position on the waiver. A person familiar with the views of Kaepernick’s representatives called the league’s proposed waiver significantly longer than a standard injury waiver and characterized it as being “drafted specifically to cover much more than a player injury.”

A person familiar with the league’s view called it “completely untrue” that the NFL was trying to get Kaepernick to waive any right to make a future claim of collusion or anything along those lines, calling the league’s proposed waiver “a standard injury waiver” that would have protected the NFL, the Falcons and others involved in staging the workout from legal liability if a participant had been injured.

Alan Milstein, a lawyer experienced in sports cases and not involved with either party, reviewed the waiver that the NFL presented to Kaepernick and a standard NFL combine waiver at The Post’s request. Milstein said the problematic language was in a paragraph that stated Kaepernick would release the NFL and affiliated parties from any injury or loss “related directly or indirectly” to the workout.

Milstein said if the NFL acted in good faith, its lawyers were only trying to protect the league and its staff at the workout from liability, especially physical injury that could lead to a workers’ compensation claim. But Milstein said he could also see why Kaepernick’s lawyers would have interpreted it as an attempt to head off future litigation, including a suit aimed at potential alleged collusion that occurred after his last suit was settled. The gap in interpretation was wide, Milstein said, but among willing partners it could have been bridged.

“If these parties didn’t really distrust each other, they probably could have worked out the release in minutes,” Milstein said. “It would be so easy to solve, but they don’t trust one another.”

Instead, the waiver became a breaking point. The sides had been in touch Nov. 13 about the proposed waiver but didn’t speak about it again until Nov. 15, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.

Kaepernick’s representatives presented the NFL with an alternative waiver around noon Nov. 16. The NFL informed Kaepernick’s representatives that it considered the new version insufficient to protect those staging the workout. At 2:28 p.m., a little more than a half-hour before the scheduled workout time, a Kaepernick representative informed an NFL official via text message that the sides had tried but wouldn’t be able to resolve the matter.

Some in and around the league questioned whether Kaepernick ever had any intention of participating, pointing to the five wide receivers Kaepernick brought with him and the security team Kaepernick’s camp had prepared at the high school field.

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Kaepernick worked out in black shorts and a black Nike tank top, cameras recording his every move. About a third of the 25 teams that had been in attendance at the Falcons’ practice facility showed up, including the Washington Redskins.

Kaepernick did not see Goodell as supportive of his cause. After his workout on the high school field, he told a group of reporters and supporters: “We have nothing to hide. So we’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running — stop running from the truth, stop running from the people.”

Now what?

Former NFL player and front-office executive John Wooten had been among the voices urging Goodell and the league to find a way to get Kaepernick back on a roster. Wooten was the chairman, now retired, of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group that works closely with the league on its minority hiring.

“My position back then to the commissioner was: He hasn’t broken any NFL rules. He hasn’t broken any laws in our country,” Wooten said. “He was pointing out issues of racial inequality. That’s why I supported him the way that I did.”

Wooten suggested the league was not at fault for the failed workout. “I was happy to see the league make the move they did,” Wooten said. “I guess I was disappointed it didn’t go the way I thought it was going to go.”

What’s next for Kaepernick remains unclear. Published reports suggest Kaepernick’s representatives haven’t heard from any teams since the workout. The league viewed the workout starting a process for a team to sign him ahead of next season as the most realistic outcome, one person familiar with the NFL’s thinking said.

“The upside is that he probably reengaged some teams’ interest and proved that physically he’s still talented,” said a decision-maker for an NFC team. “Whether something comes of it in the long term or the short term, it’s probably a net positive in terms of him staying top of mind and being an option.”

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