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The Anonymous NFL Executives Who Could Blow Colin Kaepernick’s Grievance Complaint Wide Open

In August 2016, soon after Kaepernick began his silent protest against police killings of people of color, Bleacher Reports Mike Freeman spoke with seven NFL executives who went on record to describe a seething hatred for the quarterback in the league. One said he’d never seen anything like it since Rae Carruth. For the unfamiliar, Rae Carruth, a former wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, planned and participated in the murder of his girlfriend, Cherica Adams, who was eight months pregnant with his child at the time. Adams was killed, but the baby thankfully survived, although he was permanently disabled by the attack. In Freeman’s discussions with these executives, one said of Kaepernick, “Fuck that guy,” and another called Kaepernick a “traitor.”

“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
— Section 110, Article III, The Constitution of the United States

I understand that the word “traitor” gets thrown around carelessly, but given Kaepernick’s detractors’ vehement insistence that this is about the Military, and the Flag, and the Nation, it’s not unreasonable to take them at their word and accept that they genuinely believe Kaepernick is an enemy of the United States of the ilk described in Article III of the Constitution.

That is wild.

It is equally wild that an NFL executive fixed his mouth to compare Colin Kaepernick — someone who at the time was silently and peacefully protesting state-sponsored racial violence — to a man who orchestrated the murder of his girlfriend and tried to end her late-term pregnancy with a hail of bullets. This comparison was made on the record. “Fuck that guy” was also on the record. As was calling Kaepernick a traitor.

Sensible people know that that when NFL executives discussed Kaepernick in private, when they thought no one outside their clique could hear them, some truly toxic, heinous shit was said, and some of that toxic shit is in emails, text messages and other corporate communications, all of which are discoverable.

Does the NFL Really Want This Rock Picked Up?

This is all old news, but Kaepernick’s grievance claim alleging collusion is keeping him unemployed has set in motion a legal proceeding in which corporate documents will have to be turned over during discovery and sworn depositions given. The statements those NFL executives made to Freeman on the record are a disproportionately hostile response to a peaceful protest seeking redress for a legitimate grievance. They are a microcosm of what Van Jones described as a “whitelash” in America, and that whitelash has only intensified since the election of Donald Trump. People are saying things out loud and in front of people that they knew to keep to themselves only a year ago. Sensible people know that that when NFL executives discussed Kaepernick in private, when they thought no one outside their clique could hear them, some truly toxic, heinous shit was said, and some of that toxic shit is in emails, text messages and other corporate communications, all of which are discoverable.

A consensus seems to have formed that no one would have been stupid enough to have put anything pointing to collusion in writing, but if there’s one thing the Trumpocalypse is showing us is, it’s that if you throw a stone you’ll hit a White supremacist bungler drunk on the imagined power of having “taken America back.” Anyone who’s ever worked in a corporate environment knows that friendships form, and people forget they’re at work when shooting quick written messages off to each other. I think the mouth-frothing, drama-mongering that has been roiling over the past year and how propelled it all is by heady ultra-patriotism makes it quite possible that some wannabe Captain America in an NFL front office fired off an angry email to a like-minded caped crusader in another front office saying something along the lines of “it is our solemn duty to make sure this treasonous bastard never wears an NFL uniform again.”

In addition, something that’s being dismissed in many discussions about whether or not Kaepernick’s legal team will find sufficient evidence is the value of eyewitness statements. The lack of filter on display makes me suspect there are witnesses who can be deposed about the substance of some pretty damning conversations. It’s one thing for your co-workers to avert their eyes and dodge uncomfortable questions to cover for you, it’s entirely another for them to perjure themselves.

Even if there is no smoking gun, given what Kaepernick was protesting and these executives’ extreme, visceral disgust in response, I would put every cent I have on many of the exchanges discussing Kaepernick being a racist mess. Finding out who the seven executives Freeman spoke with are and pulling on the threads of their communication might reveal something even bigger than the alleged collusion against Kaepernick, something that collusion would be a symptom of: systemic, institutionalized, anti-black racism in NFL front offices. Even if Kaepernick ultimately can’t prove two or more NFL teams colluded to deny him work, litigating his grievance will pick up that rock, and some very nasty things the NFL should want to stay hidden will slither out from under it. Accusations of collusion might actually be the least of the NFL’s worries.

“Bosses beware — when we’re screwed, we multiply.”
— A trade union slogan

Kaepernick’s grievance claim could blow up the collective bargaining agreement the league has with the players’ union. The players are 70% black, and reams of racist statements coming out of front offices would further inflame already heated passions. What is being lost in the focus on Kaepernick (which is necessary and right) is that the NFL’s actions are galvanizing a historically weak players’ union. Even though the NFL is the most valuable of the major sports leagues, its players are the lowest paid, in spite of their much shorter careers and the outsized risks they take with their long-term health. Watching their peers in other leagues receive huge guaranteed contracts has stung them for some time. Heaping on the humiliation of publicly being poked in the chest and treated like boys by their bosses during the past year has already taken its toll. The NFL does not want documents disparaging Kaepernick and other players in racially loaded language to get tossed onto the pyre as well. The owners should be doing everything in their power to avoid the discovery phase of this proceeding. At least a few of them are going to get tagged.

Which NFL Owner is the Avery Brundage of This Situation?

AP Photo

This is a once-in-a-generation moment, one that will end up in history books. So far, NFL owners have been inexplicably falling over themselves to see who can be the Avery Brundage of the situation. For the unfamiliar, Avery Brundage was an American Olympian who dedicated his life to the games and eventually rose to lead the International Olympic Committee. Brundage, then head of the Amateur Athletic Union, vouched for Nazi Germany’s commitment to Olympic principles in the run-up to the 1936 Berlin games, essentially arguing that Hitler and his accomplices were “very fine people.” He used his position as the president of the IOC to threaten the U.S. national team with expulsion from the 1968 games if its leaders didn’t punish Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their protest during their medal ceremony (pictured above), eventually bullying the U.S. Olympic Committee into suspending Smith and Carlos from the team and sending them home. (Sound familiar?) Brundage was also the driving force behind keeping the Olympics amateur and refused to countenance the idea that athletes should be paid for their labor, earning him the nickname “Slavery Avery.”

The past tells us the future. And that is the most baffling thing about all this. The parallels are clear. You can literally flip through the Civil Rights section of a high school text book and choose which character you want to be. All these incredibly powerful people with fortunes, reputations and legacies to protect who can’t put together that they’re consigning themselves to the trash heap of history are deeply confusing to me.

So, What Should NFL Owners Do?

To become an NFL owner you have to be a billionaire. Some of them are self-made. No one gets into that position or stays there without making deals that require some short-term pain. There’s still time to put the pin back in the grenade. If I were an NFL owner, I’d make whatever deal would allow me to jump ahead of my peers and find a way to write myself into the history books in a positive light, so that when the film about all this gets made twenty years from now, the actor playing me doesn’t get lit in sinister shadows while vaguely menacing music plays in the background. I’d try to be the person who puts his hand on Kaepernick’s shoulder in support as the score swells and the audience tears up. Specifically, I would do the following:

  1. Hire Colin Kaepernick if my team needs him and make sure he got a deal that was commensurate with his talent-level. If we don’t need him, I’d lean on whoever I needed to so they could lean on whoever they needed to to get Kaepernick a job somewhere. Signing all this lesser talent ahead of him and letting them steal money means the price might be higher than some might like, but paying him poorly might be taken as badly as not paying him at all. Things would be messy at first, but everyone always calms down eventually, and this is a twenty-year play (keep thinking about that movie!) not a one or two-year one.
  2. Stop telling the Black players and their allies how to protest. It’s their movement, it is peaceful, they are making reasonable demands, and they should determine how best to make their statement. I’d take the short-term heat for the long-term gain of not being the villain in the next generation’s history textbooks. I’d stay wrapped in the flag, but pivot to talking about actual freedom, like the kind enshrined in the First Amendment. I would talk about the rich legacy of sports in bringing about much-needed social change and how sorry I am that I didn’t step up sooner. I would stop short of making it about me, though. It’s tough for me to take the backseat, but I’d have to. I would support my players and offer them the resources of the team to help them get their message out and continue to work in their communities.
  3. Organize with my fellow owners to seek out some of the racists Kaepernick’s grievance proceedings will undoubtedly uncover and preemptively throw them right under the bus. Sacrifices have to be made, and it’s sure as hell not going to be me and mine.
  4. For cover, I’d stick the Avery Brundage tag on Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones and shove him out front to take all the bullets. He’s has made himself the most public vocal opponent of Kaepernick’s protest, so he’s the one who’ll have to pay the piper. I know he’s the most powerful owner, but what are you supposed to do when the call is coming from inside the house? Commissioner Roger Goodell will ultimately have to give his pound of flesh too. (I predict a humiliating resignation in his not-too-distant future.)
  5. Separate myself from Donald Trump unequivocally. That ship is going to sink ignominiously, and there’s no way I’d let myself or my reputation go down with it. The Avery Brundage parallels are important because of the “very fine” Nazis and the stench of fascism fouling the air. The “F” word isn’t one I use lightly. The President of the United States is using the power of his office to compel corporations to punish their employees for being insufficiently patriotic. That is fascism. The NFL is capitulating to it. I need to run screaming from that room before the consequences of that association are delivered. There are some things you can never live down.
  6. Lobby as hard as I can to have Eminem perform at the Super Bowl half-time show. He’s a megastar who Donald Trump can’t out-troll, and he has a new album dropping. Trump not tweeting even a single, mumbling word @ Eminem after his BET cypher roasting Trump telegraphs that Trump is frightened of Em. The NFL has the biggest stage in the world. I’d advise handing the mic to Eminem and letting him get up there and bar Trump to death. Yes, Eminem is incredibly, perhaps irretrievably problematic, but you fight with the best weapon at hand. Not to mention, the Trump presidency is White America’s creation, and they need to clean up the mess they made.
  7. Realize that all of this is going enrage a lot of White people who are going to let me hear about it and call me everything but my name. The President of the United States will be among them. They will threaten harm. It will be scary. But this is one of those moments when there’s no middle ground. I have to pick a side, and the lessons of history have clearly shown which one is just.

I don’t hold out hope that any NFL owners will take this path. I believe the attitude of those seven executives Mike Freeman spoke with reflects the values of their organizations and the league as a whole. In addition, how cowed Donald Trump has the owners is obvious. Colin Kaepernick will likely be the Curt Flood of his generation — a Black player who demanded to be treated fairly and was made to pay with his career. Flood’s sacrifice ushered in free agency in baseball, and Kaepernick’s sacrifice might end in a CBA that is more favorable to NFL players. For Kaepernick to play again, an NFL owner is going to have to display courage, and that’s just not the stuff these men are made of. They’re comfortable flexing their muscles against only those who are weaker than they are. Donald Trump chose the NFL as a target because he understands this. He recognizes his own, and they’ll be written into history as villains and collaborators.

Update, Oct. 27, 2017: Texans’ owner Bob McNair saying of the player demonstrations: “We can’t have the inmates running the prison” is the tip of a gargantuan iceberg. If someone feels comfortable saying that in mixed company, knowing it will be sent out to the world, what kind of irrepsonsible mess are they saying in private? What tone have they set for their organization? Refusing to sign Colin Kaepernick is turning into an act of harakiri — ritual sacrifice on the altar of White supremacy.

Update, Oct. 28, 2017: A great article in ESPN The Magazine laid out what happened at the Oct. 17 meeting between ownership and players. After reading it, I’m even more convinced of the following: (1) this is all going to go even further off the rails, (2) some seriously damning information is going to come out in the documents and depositions in Kaepernick’s grievance proceedings, and (3) Jerry Jones is indeed the Avery Brundage of this mess.

Thanks for reading!