6 months later, NFL’s Colin Kaepernick settlement has failed to buy silence

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Last February, the NFL was supposed to have bought a resolution to its Colin Kaepernick problem.

The league had paid the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback to go away, reaching a collusion case settlement with Kaepernick and Eric Reid. A nondisclosure agreement was in place. Recorded depositions and discovery evidence in the case were presumably locked away forever. Even the lingering threat of political crossfire and television ratings upheaval appeared to be soothed.

Yet more than six months later, the league still can’t get away from the Kaepernick conversation. And the voices of the two men the NFL paid to go away are arguably louder than ever.

First came the video drops from Kaepernick reminding everyone that he’s “still ready” and has been “denied work” by the NFL. Next came President Donald Trump commenting on Kaepernick’s NFL job prospects from the White House lawn. That was followed by star New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley defiantly voicing his support for Kaepernick while seeming to take a poke at the league for his unemployment. And finally, in a moment that should have been a crowning public relations moment for the NFL, the ambiguous music/social justice partnership with Jay-Z spawned an ongoing conversation about whether a highly visible Kaepernick supporter had “sold out” to the league’s powerful and deep checkbook.

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid reached an undisclosed settlement with the NFL in a collusion case. That agreement hasn't kept them quiet recently. (Getty Images)

Kaepernick – and most especially Reid, who is now with the Carolina Panthers – have remained anything but quiet. If anything, it has been the opposite, with the pair using their highly visible social media platforms to amplify the very conversation the NFL had hoped to end last February.

So what exactly did the NFL buy with that settlement? It certainly doesn’t appear to have forced this entire conversation to disappear. Nor does it appear to have purchased a significant measure of silence. Right about now, the settlement looks remarkably weak considering two of the realities that have become obvious:

  • First, it’s crystal clear that Kaepernick never agreed to cease seeking employment in the settlement terms reached with the league. Any doubt about that was put to bed by a handful of videos posted to the social media accounts of Kaepernick and Reid – all remarking that Kaepernick is “still ready” and still being “denied work” in his job pursuit.

  • Second, and perhaps more glaring for the league, it seems the NFL failed to get either Kaepernick or Reid to refrain from talking about the league following their settlement. Kaepernick’s videos took shots at the NFL, and no voice has hammered the partnership between the league and Jay-Z more bluntly than Reid in the past few days.

Kaepernick, Reid continue to be problematic for NFL

For the NFL, the math in this situation is easy and embarrassing. Six months after reportedly cutting a check to Kaepernick and Reid, it still has a negative public relations mess on its hands.

Kaepernick is still seeking a job.

Kaepernick and Reid are still taking shots at the NFL.

Kaepernick and Reid are both driving some blunt questions about the NFL’s social justice motivations and partnership with Jay-Z.

By most accounts, those realities make this whole settlement look crummy for the league. Either that, or there was a misunderstanding over what the NFL was actually trying to settle.

What did the NFL actually pay for in the Kaepernick/Reid settlement?

True figure in financial settlement likely to remain hidden

It’s worth repeating that we’ll likely never know exactly what the NFL settled for last February, when it reached a financial settlement to end the collusion case brought by Kaepernick and Reid. To date, neither party has appeared to leak meaningful details of the agreement – assumably because there was a strict confidentiality agreement put into place.

Indeed, the only news offering particulars of the settlement have been conflicting reports about the financial settlement number. To date, no NFL source has been willing to confirm any settlement figures to Yahoo Sports, while Kaepernick’s attorneys have declined comment on the conclusion of the case.

What seems to be undeniable is the NFL paid Kaepernick and Reid some still-undisclosed sum of money. And that money was aimed at purchasing something. It clearly wasn’t Kaepernick’s retirement, nor a measure of silence or non-disparagement from either the former quarterback or Reid.

So what was the money for?

Given some of the other details that leaked during the course of the collusion case, there are three things left that would have been of value to the NFL.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, pictured with President Trump during a 2017 White House visit, was deposed in the Kaepernick-Reid collusion case. (AP)

Depositions from leading team owners kept out of public

First, there are all the depositions and discovery evidence in the collusion case, which were supposed to have remained sealed under the collective-bargaining agreement. Some of that discovery process and the ensuing cross examinations had a focus on ties between NFL team owners and the politically charged rhetoric of Trump. Multiple owners and executives who were significant backers of Trump underwent depositions. Among them were four owners who not only had private conversations with the President about the NFL, but who were also significant financial contributors to Trump politically: Late Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Denver Broncos general manager John Elway – also a political backer of Trump – was also deposed in the case. As was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who became the traffic cop between the owners who spent a large portion of the 2017 season wringing their hands over Trump’s political attacks and the social justice protests of players.

From Goodell to Elway to all of those owners, each of those depositions were taped. And each likely featured the NFL’s biggest power brokers getting grilled by lawyers in a way that nobody has ever seen.

All of that has been sealed forever. Including any leaks that would have violated the CBA.

No leaks, no chance at defeat and no Trump blasts

The second valuable asset in a settlement was the discovery evidence. For months, the attorneys in the Kaepernick case sifted through a trove of digital information, including emails, text messages and other forms of communication between team owners, executives and the league office. That entire collection of data, like the taped depositions, are likely sealed for eternity.

Finally, the last asset in a settlement that would have mattered to the league: an end to testimony and any further discovery. Ultimately, when the collusion case came to a conclusion in February, it meant the commissioner, owners and executives weren’t going to have to go in front of arbitrator Stephen Burbank for another cross examination. It meant no more opportunities for mistakes or leaks or unknown variables suddenly wreaking havoc on the NFL. And it also meant one less circus for Trump to focus on whenever he felt inclined to do so.

That conclusion, along with closing down a case that the NFL could have lost, is what the league bought in the Kaepernick settlement. But six months later – in the midst of another public relations cycle surrounding the former quarterback – it’s worth wondering if the league wishes it had pushed for more at the settlement table.

What’s next for Kaepernick?

With that volume of depositions and communications locked away, it leaves the NFL to contend with Kaepernick remaining a looming presence over anything and everything the league does with the public relations end of its social justice efforts. He has become the constant qualifier in every foray since he was bounced from the league in 2017.

The league shelved a rule prohibiting player protest, but Kaepernick still hasn’t gotten so much as a workout offer from a team.

The league earmarked tens of millions for social justice efforts moving forward, but the first player to thrust the issues into the league’s face appears to still be paying a price for it.

The league cut a largely undefined deal with entertainment icon Jay-Z to further promote its social justice works, but now Jay-Z appears to have turned his back on the player he once supported.

All of these qualifiers may not bother the NFL. It’s arguable that the league has always been willing to weather whatever comes in the wake of Kaepernick not having a job. And that might have always been the plan, from the moment Kaepernick went after the NFL with his collusion case.

But it doesn’t change one fact: The league settled the collusion case with Kaepernick and Reid, yet has continued to take body punches from that tandem ever since. Kaepernick isn’t going away for the NFL. He’s still going to be throwing barbs and reminding everyone that he’s being “denied work” and “still ready”. And right next to him, Reid is going to be taking that messaging and amplifying it in a way that even Kaepernick hasn’t – with words and messages aimed at anyone and everyone. Even the seemingly untouchable Jay-Z.

Maybe these are problems the NFL is willing to live with. But they are problems nonetheless. Six months after reaching a settlement to resolve one part of the Colin Kaepernick issue, another persists. The one that is “still ready” and still “denied work.”

And apparently, still a reminder that as much as the NFL might have tried to buy its way out of this problem, it didn’t pay enough to buy silence from the only people that mattered in the first place.

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