by Richard C. Crepeau

FEBRUARY 17, 2019       archive

It has been two weeks since the Super Bowl, and the National Football League continues to dominate the sports headlines.

It was August 26, 2016 that San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit during the playing of the national anthem at a home exhibition game. A week later, Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid, knelt during the anthem at a game in San Diego. "Taking a knee" entered the American lexicon.

Two days ago, Kaepernick and Reid reached a settlement with the NFL. Kaepernick filed his grievance in October of 2017, and Reid filed in early May of 2018. The players charged that the NFL and its owners had colluded to deny them employment in the league. Friday's announcement came as a surprise to many who have watched this drama play out. The agreement contains a confidentiality clause, meaning no one involved in the case can speak publicly about the details of the settlement.

Kaepernick has gotten most of the attention as he has been at the center of the storm since it began in August of 2016. In addition Reid played in the NFL this past season and did so while continuing to kneel during the National Anthem.

One question that is now being asked is, "Who won?" The answer is less than clear, in part, because the terms of the settlement are unknown and, in part, because weighing gains and losses depends on how wide a context the entire situation is viewed.

The initial public reaction to Kaepernick was negative. When asked what he was protesting, Kaepernick said he was doing this to protest police brutality and the killing of black men by the police. He added that he loved America and that he was seeking to make America a better place. After game-long booing in San Diego, he announced that he was donating one million dollars to charity.

Kaepernick started eleven games for San Francisco in 2017, and then in the off-season, he opted out of his contract. From that point on, no offers came his way while eighty some quarterbacks were signed by teams in need. Across the NFL and across the country, players at all levels of football down to high school and youth players were "taking the knee" in support of Kaepernick and as part of the protest over police abuse of African Americans. Players in other sports also were "taking a knee" and voicing their support of the protest and Kaepernick. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, most owners, and most coaches were unhappy over the growing protest.

Also unhappy was President Trump who, just as the movement seemed to be losing some of its momentum, attacked the protest at a public rally in Alabama in late September of 2017. This reignited the protest and the controversy. Trump called on the NFL to stop the protest and "fire" the protesters.

By this point, much of the sports press, fans, and many in the general public, as well as, the President had redefined the protest as an unpatriotic act of disrespect for the flag and the troops. This, of course, was not the object of the protest, but it was an effective way of discrediting Kaepernick and others while fueling the negative public reaction.

It became clear very early on, and increasingly over time, that race was an important component, not just in the object of the protest but in the public reaction to it. African American athletes and a high percentage of African Americans were sympathetic to the aims of the protest and to Kaepernick and Reid. White Americans were decidedly less so.

The National Football League found itself in a very uncomfortable position caught between the majority of its players and a large segment of its fans, while simultaneously getting criticized by the President and other politicians. The League initiated a rule that in the 2018 season players would be required to stand for the National Anthem without protest, and, if they didn't want to do so, they could stay in the locker room. Enforcement of the rule was quickly abandoned as players and the NFL Players Association objected.

The passage of time seemed to decrease the controversy within the NFL, but the support for the protest outside the league seemed to be growing. This became painfully obvious for the NFL at the recent Super Bowl in Atlanta. In the home city of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the NFL made an effort to honor the legacy of Dr. King and show its support for the Civil Rights movement.

However, the shadow of Colin Kaepernick was cast over the proceedings and many in Atlanta drew a direct line between Kaepernick and the legacy of Dr. King. The player who wasn't there seemed to be popping up throughout Super Bowl week on t-shirts and in comments by players and celebrities. Even the half-time show at the Super Bowl was impacted as several groups turned down a chance to perform, and those that finally did perform were subject to considerable criticism.

Perhaps more significantly, the NFL lost its first legal test in August of 2018 when an arbitrator ruled that the grievance was supported by enough evidence to go forward to a full hearing. This, it is believed, led NFL officials to look for a way out as they did not want the Commissioner or any owners being called for depositions or required to give testimony in a grievance hearing.

Much more difficult to assess is why Kaepernick and the Players Association would agree to the settlement. He has not made any public statement at this point and, of course when he does, he may not be able to say much given the confidentiality terms of the agreement.

What is known is that once again the inner workings and dynamics of the National Football League will avoid public exposure, and, on that basis, the League gets a win just as it did on the Concussion settlement. In the end, what both settlements show is that the NFL has massive resources which allow the League to buy its way out of any uncomfortable or threatening situation. In addition, the power of the NFL is formidable, and it is not averse to using that power. The other big story this week concerning Bob Costas and the NFL revealed the scope of that power.

On the other hand, the Players Association got a win, in that Kaepernick and Reid were able to force the NFL into a settlement on an issue of player discipline. It is perhaps a small victory, but one that NFL owners are not celebrating. Furthermore Colin Kaepernick and the nation was a winner as he started a conversation that has been ongoing, widespread, and at times, even fruitful.

No doubt, more will be revealed over the coming weeks and months, but it is likely that it will be some years before clarity and transparency will be achieved.

On Sport and Society this is Dick Crepeau reminding you that you don't have to be a good sport to be a bad loser.

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