The NFL has never backed away from a fight it thought it could win.
Deflategate. Bountygate. Spygate.
Maurice Clarett’s challenge to the league’s rules about underclassmen entering the draft.
Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and Ezekiel Elliott.
Every single collective-bargaining agreement negotiation with the players’ union.
The NFL prevailed in all of those legal challenges, going back decades. You want to mess with the most lucrative sports league in American history? Be prepared to lose.
Against that backdrop, Friday’s announcement of a settlement in the collusion cases brought against the NFL by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid becomes all the more astonishing.
Given the league’s track record for repeated courtroom victories in a variety of cases, the fact that the NFL wasn’t ready to fight this time underscores how sweeping a victory Kaepernick and Reid scored.
While terms of the settlements weren’t released, and both sides are sworn to secrecy about any details — including what likely are significant financial compensation packages to both players — the fact that the NFL chose not to let the cases proceed in a hearing before arbitrator Stephen Burbank later this month speaks volumes about the risks to the league’s brand.
Previous court fights often have bruised the NFL’s reputation but almost never left the league in a mood to settle and avoid the kind of public humiliation that could impact the bottom line. The NFL’s recent settlement in a concussions case brought by thousands of former players, many of them dealing with the aftereffects of repeated collisions during their playing days, is a rare example of the league’s unwillingness to go down a legal path that might uncover revelations that would shake the foundations of the sport.
Kaepernick cannot claim public victory because of his agreement to maintain confidentiality about his case and thus not reveal any potentially incriminating facts revealed during the discovery phase. But the NFL’s reluctance to have details of conversations and communications about Kaepernick’s inability to find work the last two seasons after opting out of his contract with the 49ers certainly is noteworthy.
The league clearly wants to move on from the matter, lest emotions again become inflamed and create downward pressure on ratings — which is precisely what happened once Kaepernick decided to take a knee during the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and police brutality.
His protests, which led several other players, including Reid, to respond with similar actions, created plenty of controversy along the way. But they also created a heightened awareness of what the protests focused on, and the league eventually partnered with a players’ coalition and dedicated nearly $100 million to address issues first raised by Kaepernick.
There were plenty of fumbles by NFL owners along the way — most notably the ill-conceived plan announced last May to fine teams if any players didn’t stand during the anthem, an idea that has since been abandoned. But in the end, most of the players protesting were satisfied that the league office and owners supported initiatives aimed at reforming the criminal justice system and addressing other societal problems.
The protests during the anthem have largely disappeared. Reid was one of only a handful of players who continued to take a knee after joining the Panthers last September. NFL ratings recovered during the 2018 season after a dip in 2017, and the controversy has virtually disappeared.
Yet Kaepernick’s original message continues to resonate, even with the visible signs of protest almost all gone.
Two examples of how that message still applies:
At its annual awards ceremony the night before Super Bowl LIII, the NFL announced Eagles defensive end Chris Long as the winner of the coveted Walter Payton Man of the Year award, an honor that recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service. He established the Chris Long Foundation in 2015 to address three areas: clean water, military appreciation and youth education. As part of his Waterboys initiative, Long achieved his goal of building 32 clean water wells — one for every NFL team — in East African communities. He also committed his entire 2017 salary to fund scholarships in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Long also was the one who put his arm around teammate Malcolm Jenkins as the Eagles safety raised a fist during the anthem in 2017 as a way to protest racial injustice, just as Kaepernick had done.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, the owner of Prime Time Sports had to close his store after 20 years. He decided to pull all Nike equipment and apparel from his store to protest Nike’s use of Kaepernick in its commercials, and sales plummeted.
“Being a sports store without Nike is kind of like being a milk store without milk or a gas station without gas,” owner Stephen Martin told KOAA News. “How do you do it? They have a monopoly on jerseys.”
Nike took plenty of heat for using Kaepernick in its advertisements, but the company’s revenues quickly recovered after an initial dip at the beginning of the advertising campaign.
Kaepernick remains a deeply polarizing figure, and it is highly doubtful that he will stop speaking out on racial and social justice issues. He has been accused by some of being a sellout by settling with the NFL and not taking his case further to potentially cast more negative light on the league. And there is some merit to that line of thinking, given that he surely could have gone further without fear of financial repercussions.
But all things considered, Kaepernick comes out ahead.