News and Commentary

NFL Insiders: Kaepernick Tryout Needlessly Derailed By His Camp’s Distrust Of League
Colin Kaepernick looks on during his NFL workout held at Charles R Drew high school on November 16, 2019 in Riverdale, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

A new report by ESPN provides a behind the scenes look at “Why Colin Kaepernick and the NFL were never going to work out,” told from “the viewpoints of Kaepernick and his legal team, the NFL attorneys in charge of negotiating the deal for the league, an NFLPA at a curious remove from the center of the action and a host of sources close to the situation.”

While the report presents the workout debacle in a rather fatalistic light, as the title suggests, and presents Team Kaepernick in a sympathetic manner, quotes and comments from league insiders suggest that what ultimately derailed the Nov. 16 workout Kaepernick chose to skip last second was his camp’s “distrust” and “resentment” of the league, which appears to have been genuinely offering him a “legitimate” shot at getting back on the field.

“After an extraordinary week of cynicism and possibilities, what remained after the doomed workout on Nov. 16 was a set of dueling narratives: One held that the NFL was never truly serious about a Kaepernick return; the other held that Kaepernick was so unwilling to compromise to a reasonable, professional standard that he closed the last, best chance to resume his NFL career,” writes ESPN Senior Writer Howard Bryant in his insider look at Kaepernick’s aborted tryout published Tuesday.

According to Bryant’s sources, the Kaepernick workout idea began with Roger Goodell having strong motivation to “find a path back for Kaepernick” into the league and reports that “two teams were legitimately interested in Kaepernick”:

According to league sources, a statement that Kaepernick’s team sent on Oct. 10 reiterating his readiness to return to the NFL — a statement that news outlets tweeted and Kaepernick retweeted — caught the attention of commissioner Roger Goodell. The post landed on receptive ears for two reasons. The first was that important business partners such as Jay-Z and respected advisers such as legendary sociologist Harry Edwards were pressuring Goodell to find a path back for Kaepernick. The second and more important reason was that the league’s football operations department had alerted Goodell to a piece of news long considered unlikely: Two teams were legitimately interested in Kaepernick.

“Inside and outside, the thought was, ‘Let’s provide him the opportunity,'” said one NFL source.

But Kaepernick’s camp was immediately suspicious, criticizing the NFL’s attempt to “concentrate narrowly on football” rather than choosing to “confront [Kaepernick and the league’s] acrimonious history” first:

Kaepernick’s camp maintained that he had been out of work for three full seasons for reasons nothing to do with football and everything to do with his politics regarding social justice and his on-field protests. Still, the NFL’s strategy in approaching Kaepernick was to concentrate narrowly on football. To sources both outside the league office and the Kaepernick team, this was the NFL’s first mistake; the only way to get Kaepernick and the league to trust each other was to confront their acrimonious history with diplomacy so both sides might more easily believe the other was entering the workout with legitimate motives.

When the NFL delivered the details about the workout — which was scheduled for that Saturday at the Falcons’ training facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia — and offered the Kaepernick’s team two hours to accept, the former QB’s camp responded with even more suspicion and distrust:

[Kaepernick’s agent Jeff Nalley] called Kaepernick, who then called his best friend, Panthers safety Eric Reid. Kaepernick’s legal team convened for a conference call. The Kaepernick team, led by Nalley, Mark Geragos and Ben Meiselas of the law firm Geragos & Geragos, was stunned. Reid was immediately dismissive. It had to be a publicity stunt, he thought.

Team Kaepernick questioned why the workout had to be held on Saturday, and that particular Saturday rather than a week later, and why it had to be in Atlanta. They also didn’t like the business-like tone of the NFL’s communication.

But as Bryant’s sources explained, the NFL had very straightforward reasons for the arrangement: Saturday was actually the best day because they needed an NFL facility to be available; that Saturday was best because the sooner the better for Kaepernick to get into the league; and Atlanta was the chosen location because the team had offered the facility.

When a Kaepernick associate asked if they could push the tryout back a week, the NFL refused, a league source explaining, “Like any other free agent, they find out when the workout is, it’s on short notice, and they get on a plane and get there. We thought the speed of the workout was for Colin’s benefit. There aren’t that many weeks left. We did not see the value in having some drawn-out, dramatic event.”

“To the league, there was no reason to believe the invitation was illegitimate,” Bryant writes. “If Kaepernick wanted to play, here was his chance. Despite the events of the past three years, the NFL believed it could offer Kaepernick a legitimate workout based solely on football merits. It was an attitude that reflected the power and, some Kaepernick sources say, the arrogance of a $15 billion behemoth.”

While Kaepernick’s camp interpreted the NFL’s offer of a straight workout as “arrogance,” league insiders insist they were simply trying to keep it all focused on what this is all supposed to be about: playing football.

“It was not about the external noise,” said an NFL source. “This was to be a football-centric exercise, full stop. He wanted a workout. He said he was ready to go. We set that up.”

Eventually, Kaepernick’s camp became focused on two issues: the waiver and the ability to bring their own camera crew. Both became issues, again, because of “distrust” and “old resentments” directed at the league.

NFL insiders have consistently defended the waiver as having no ill-intent and their decision about the camera crew to be solely about avoiding a media circus — rather than, as Kaepernick’s team “feared,” an attempt to “manipulate the footage and send to the media and the teams not in attendance an edited version highlighting his mistakes — bad throws, stumbles, poor footwork — as proof he was no longer NFL material,” as Bryant reports.

Again, the NFL maintained that the fears were unfounded, offering Kaepernick the raw footage of the workout immediately following the tryout and inviting his camp to sit with the NFL camera crew during the event. But, as Bryant reports, “Kaepernick’s team did not budge, believing it should have the right to film its client’s workout.”

“The focus was on the workout,” said an NFL source. “If we wanted to turn it into a publicity stunt, it would have been on NFL Network.”

“If you look at what we were willing to do, their concerns don’t hold water,” said another NFL insider. “They could stop the video whenever they liked, and we’d give them the raw footage. It has as much legitimacy as their concerns about the waiver.”

Kaepernick’s team has continued to insist that the “nonstandard” waiver is the ultimate reason they decided to ditch the NFL workout. The waiver, they claim, would not allow him to file another “collusion” complaint, but the NFL says that’s nonsense:

League sources say the NFL was viewing the waiver only for injury liability and had no sinister intention of using that or other similarly broad clauses in the waiver as a backdoor attempt to get Kaepernick to forfeit his rights. League sources say a true collusion case couldn’t have been stopped by that waiver. “If that’s all it took,” a league source says, “we would’ve done something like this two years ago and saved ourselves a bunch of money.”

Read the full ESPN report here.

Related: WATCH: After No Teams Call Him, Kaepernick Posts Defiant Message To League