On Sunday, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance alleging that NFL owners are colluding to keep him unemployed during the 2017 season, as first reported by Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report.
Criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos, Kaepernick’s lawyer, confirmed the news in a statement later on Sunday. Gregaros said the suit was only filed “after pursuing every possible avenue with all NFL teams and their executives.”
This lawsuit could literally be a game-changer, not just for Kaepernick, but for the labor rights of all NFL players. He is hoping to trigger termination of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which was signed on 2011 and is set to expire in 2021, by proving that the NFL-at-large conspired to keep him out of the league.
The CBA has been widely panned because it gives management, particularly NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, an unwieldy amount of power. If Kaepernick is successful in his suit, it would force NFL owners back to the table in 2018 — and give the NFL players a more powerful bargaining position than they’ve had in recent memory.
Of course, this all came about because Kaepernick launched a world-wide movement last year when he took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Hundreds of other NFL players have taken a knee or raised a fist in solidarity with the movement in the year since, as have hundreds upon hundreds of grade school, high school, and college students around the country.
Kaepernick parted ways with the 49ers in March, but despite the fact that the 6’4″ 29-year-old has started 58 games in his six-year NFL career and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl in 2013 as a rookie, he remains unemployed six weeks into the season, while dozens of untested and unproven quarterbacks have signed contracts and injuries to elite quarterbacks have left playoff-contending teams hungry for a capable veteran to lead the way.
“Colin Kaepernick’s goal has always been, and remains, to simply be treated fairly by the league he performed at the highest level for and to return to the football playing field,” Geragos said.
Three weeks ago, President Donald Trump reignited a round of protests when he attacked Kaepernick and other NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem, telling his raucous supporters at a rally in Alabama, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!”
The weekend after Trump’s comments, many owners made a big deal out of showing solidarity with their players, by standing with them on the sidelines, in some cases linking arms or taking a knee. But in the weeks since, their tone has changed — last week, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross both said their players were forbidden from kneeling during the anthem going forward.
This week, the NFL and NFLPA are expected to meet and discuss what to do about protests during the national anthem in the future.
Gregaros said that Kaepernick isn’t just filing this suit to stand up for his employment rights, but that he’s doing to protect all NFL players from “collusive conduct” and threats from the President of the United States.
If the NFL (as well as all professional sports leagues) is to remain a meritocracy, then principled and peaceful political protest–which the owners themselves made great theater imitating weeks ago–should not be punished and athletes should not be denied employment based on partisan political provocation by the Executive Branch of our government. Such a precedent threatens all patriotic Americans and harkens back to our darkest days as a nation. Protecting all athletes from such collusive conduct is what compelled Mr. Kaepernick to file his grievance.
According to the CBA, NFL teams, coaches, agents, owners, and executives are not permitted to come to any agreement, “expressed or implied,” to restrict or limit a team’s decision-making when it comes to contract negotiations, offer sheets for restricted free agents, contract offers, or terms or conditions of employment.
However, Kaepernick’s unemployment alone won’t be enough to prove collusion; he is going to have to come up with some concrete evidence that the owners are working together to keep him out of the league.
But if he can provide clear and convincing evidence, one act of collusion against one player would be enough to terminate the CBA. If that happens, as Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk put it, “the ramifications would be enormous, and historical.”