On October 15, Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance against the National Football League. It alleged that team owners had colluded to keep him out of uniform, not because of his athletic performance, but because of his decision to protest acts of police brutality and racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. The move gave official procedure to a politically infused conflict that had been contested, to that point, through the media, and that had long since taken its place in the broader culture war.
Mark Geragos, the lawyer representing Kaepernick, wrote at the time, “If the NFL (as well as all professional sports leagues) is to remain a meritocracy, then principled and peaceful political protests—which the owners themselves made great theater imitating weeks ago—should not be punished and athletes should not be denied employment based on partisan political provocation by the executive branch of our government.” His statement closed with a direct request: “Colin Kaepernick’s goal has always been, and remains, to simply be treated fairly by the league he performed at the highest level for and to return to the football playing field.”
For the length of this season, the absence of Kaepernick—inexplicable by one set of standards, all too explicable by another—has remained the dominant and unavoidable story. In the weeks since his collusion claim, though, that absence has become even more conspicuous. As injuries to some quarterbacks and subpar play from others lead to a frantic reshuffling of rosters, Kaepernick remains out of work, and the oft-repeated explanations from coaches and executives that he’s simply unqualified no longer hold up to scrutiny. Promoted backups struggle, third-stringers inspire little hope, and a recent star who came within five yards of winning a Super Bowl awaits a call. With each passing Sunday, the NFL itself builds Kaepernick’s case.