When NFL officials agreed to set up a workout for Kaepernick, they clearly hoped to prove that there was no league-wide conspiracy to keep him unemployed, and that he just wasn’t good enough to play professionally.
Read: How Trump turned Kaepernick’s protest into a success
But the workout became a circus of its own, and not only because the league tried to micromanage media coverage of the event and proposed a liability waiver whose language Kaepernick’s camp could not abide. It was fishy that the NFL was even attempting to stage a workout at all. The league does not typically conduct player workouts. Individual teams do. And considering that no NFL team—not even the ones desperately in need a quarterback—had brought Kaepernick in for a workout since his final season in San Francisco, the question of whether there was still legitimate interest in Kaepernick as a quarterback had already been answered in the negative. Since the NFL was essentially proposing a sham tryout—a glorified PR stunt—it can’t be surprising that things unraveled.
As a counter, Kaepernick held his own private workout at Charles Drew High School, in Atlanta, on the same day the NFL had proposed. Only six NFL scouts attended. The workout was live-streamed. Based on what the video shows, Kaepernick appeared to be in excellent shape. The arm strength that allowed Kaepernick to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl during the 2012 season was still apparent.
Of course, this dispute never had anything to do with Kaepernick’s ample talent—or his marketability, for that matter. His role in a widely praised Nike ad campaign suggests that he poses no threat to the league’s bottom line; if anything, there is still an appetite for him among fans. But he is a danger because a league that champions conformity and balks at individual expression cannot have a player on its roster whose narrative is beyond its control. No player is supposed to be bigger than the NFL’s powerful brand. But even from exile, Kaepernick has managed to overshadow the league on more than a few occasions.
Still, the NFL’s banishment of Kaepernick wasn’t just an effort by a multibillion-dollar sports empire to make an example of a player who spoke up against the owners’ wishes. It wasn’t just an attempt to appease conservative white fans and nervous advertisers. Nor was it just a way to pander to President Donald Trump out of fear that he would sic his cultish followers on pro football.
In its treatment of Kaepernick, the NFL also played out, in modern form, a scenario all too familiar from American history: The league showed black employees that their livelihood will be destroyed if they question white dominance and threaten the systems that have oppressed people of color for centuries.
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