Reaction to the NFL’s “Kaepernick Policy” Reveals Fractures in Ownership’s United Front

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Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash

I’m interested in stories, and since its inception, I’ve been riveted by the story Colin Kaepernick has been trying to tell with his protest. I’ve always tried in my small way to fight for it to be heard, because I knew it was going to be muddied up by cynical propaganda. The narrative is simultaneously clear yet nebulous and difficult to pin down, because the true antagonist is systemic, institutionalized racism. The racialized police violence he took a knee to condemn is the most egregious symptom of the disease.

Until the NFL wrote itself into Kaepernick’s story, there was no clear villain, no single malfeasant entity to point to. The league made itself Goliath to his David when it chose to injure him, and it has escalated matters at every turn.

I’ve written about not understanding why so many pundits and commentators were ready to accept the assertion (often taken as self-evident) that Kaepernick’s legal team would have a hard time finding evidence that NFL teams colluded to deny him employment. Especially when the NFL owners and management have so comprehensively bungled every step of the aftermath of his protest.

The latest round of farcical stumbling around and walking into door frames comes from Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office.

In an effort to squash the player protests Kaepernick started (protests which were petering out), the league announced a policy requiring players to refrain from demonstrating during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner or stay in the locker room. With this “Kaepernick Policy,”* the league is shining floodlights on and shouting about the thing it doesn’t want anyone paying attention to.

The Kaepernick Policy demands players show “proper respect” to national symbols. What does “proper respect” mean? Who gets to decide? Is punishment for failure to comply fair or just? What are the mechanisms to defend oneself against these charges? Does any of this even make sense?

The league had actually considered handing down 15-yard penalties to teams whose players didn’t comply with the new rules.

This is self-parody.

Anyone who’d thought about the decision for more than two seconds could see holes you could fly a 747 through. As Robert Klemko and Jim Trotter reported via Twitter, the new rules have galvanized the players, whose momentum was flagging. Desire to “spite” the NFL is motivating some.

And, as Bomani Jones tweeted, the policy does nothing to address player demonstrations that might take place outside of the nationalistic displays that precede “apolitical” NFL games. He’s also pointed out many times that any demonstration against racialized police violence would displease those who are intent on ignoring the injustice Kaepernick wants them to confront.

An interesting twist in all this is that Commissioner Goodell’s announcement came a day after the NFL finalized its agreement with the Players Coalition for a $90 million social justice partnership.

The deal was first announced at the end of 2017 under a dark cloud. The Players Coalition, under the leadership of Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, was accused of selling out Kaepernick’s protest. Eric Reid, the first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick and who has joined him on the NFL’s blacklist, was vocal in distancing himself from the group, going so far as to call some of Jenkins’ actions “toxic” and making it clear neither Jenkins nor Boldin spoke for him. Other players also parted ways with the coalition.

The reasonable assumption here is, believing that inking the deal with the Players Coalition had taken care of the players’ concerns, Goodell turned his attention to appeasing Donald Trump by implementing the Kaepernick Policy.

The attempt to square that circle demonstrates that Roger Goodell is divorced from reality.

Jenkins and Boldin aren’t the leaders of this movement. And even if they were, that wouldn’t grant them the license to negotiate away the players’ right to protest in exchange for money. Not when there’s a union and a collective bargaining agreement. Not while Colin Kaepernick is being blackballed. Not when Eric Reid was figuratively willing to flip tables over it.

Even more egregious is Goodell’s belief that he could triangulate to safe ground with Trump. Megalomania and fascism function by demanding strict adherence to rules that are changed on a whim. There is no middle ground by design. The ever-shifting landscape destabilizes people and keeps them guessing, allowing power to be consolidated and outrages against decency to be committed while everyone keeps updating the handbook and trying to make sense of it. The pettier the infraction in question, the better. Performative patriotism is particularly fertile ground, because it’s always so easy to whip some significant portion of the populace into a nationalistic frenzy.

Goodell doesn’t fully understand what he has capitulated to. Or perhaps he just doesn’t care. After all, he’s being allowed to steal a lucrative living.

One thing this debacle clears up about Goodell (besides the question of his ineptitude) is that he’s dishonest. He lied when he said the Kaepernick Policy was passed unanimously by ownership. The league had polled the owners, but there was no formal vote.

I’ve long suspected that not all the owners were on board with kowtowing to Donald Trump, and this overreach by Goodell seems to have shaken some of them loose.

Christopher Johnson, co-owner of the Jets, says he will pay any fines his team’s players might incur for violating the policy. In rosier times during the Trump-NFL relationship, his brother, Woody, was named Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The Johnsons may be best positioned among the owners to understand the rot the Trump administration is spreading. This move may be the first step of many they make to try and preserve their family’s name and reputation when the ship inevitably sinks.

Harvey Kaye, a co-owner of the Packers, tweeted a strong statement, saying he was “ashamed of the organization bowing to the antidemocratic efforts of the NFL.”

The ownership’s united front has fractured.

I think Kaepernick’s legal team has the goods, and people are trying to distance themselves from the fallout. Mark Geragos, the lead attorney, retweeted the league’s announcement of the Kaepernick Policy with a single hashtag: #nflcollusion.

The announcement of the policy coincided with the revelation that the NFL commissioned a poll of fans to determine their attitudes on important league concerns. Kaepernick was the only player mentioned by name.

In addition, a key part of Kaepernick’s grievance claim is that the Trump administration has played a role in orchestrating the collusion against him. When the Kaepernick Policy was announced, Vice President Pence tweeted a screenshot of the CNN report with the hashtag #Winning. In response, Geragos tweeted “Winning!” with a link to the section of the U.S. Code that outlaws government employees from interfering in the employment decisions of private entities.

There is smoke where we were told there would be none. The fire will be revealed to us soon.

*Framing matters. There are certain words and phrases we are being manipulated into repeating. That is why I made the decision not to call the NFL’s new rules its [fill in the blank with the word they want us to repeat as many times as possible] policy. Our choice of language is a powerful tool against propaganda. I understand that journalists doing the first round of reporting have less leeway than those of us providing commentary days later.

(Please avoid the urge to make the same “not on the job” and “he’s a distraction” comments we’ve all had to endure since this whole thing started. Colin Kaepernick is in a union, one that negotiated a 300-plus-page collective bargaining agreement with his potential employers. So, no, the owners don’t have free rein; they’ve agreed to have their powers to hire and fire limited. Having to remove this much context to make an argument makes it look like you don’t have one.)

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