Deflate-gate and the mystery of the Patriot’s missing Super Bowl jersey are but a distant memory. Seven weeks into the regular season, the National Football League is mired in a quarterback controversy that has managed to become a political talking point. And it seems to be coming to a head.
On Monday, former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance under the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, accusing team owners of colluding to keep him from playing football. The move came seven months after Kaepernick opted out of his contract, and a little over a year since he first took a knee to protest police brutality.
Then, this past Tuesday, following a meeting between players and owners focused on players’ platforms for speaking about social justice issues, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reaffirmed that teams would not require their players to stand for the national anthem. President Donald Trump promptly attacked the league on Twitter. “Total disrespect for our great country!” wrote the commander-in-chief.
The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
And at the start of this week, veteran Green Beret and former UT Longhorn long-snapper Nate Boyer penned an open letter to his fellow Americans strenuously arguing in favor of unity. “I believe that progress and real change happens in this world when you reach across the divide, you build a bridge, you swallow your pride, you open your mind, you embrace what you don’t understand, and ultimately you surrender.”
Notably, Boyer met with Kaepernick prior to the 2016 season and encouraged him to take a knee during the national anthem, rather than simply sit on the bench.
So it’s been another busy week in the world of football—and that doesn’t even take into account what actually happened on the gridiron.
And this week was only a continuation of a collision between the NFL and politics. Avowedly apolitical Houston sports personality Sean Pendergast prefers to focus on the game. So the drive-time host on CBS Radio and freelance contributor to the Houston Press certainly didn’t expect to ignite a dumpster fire a couple of weeks ago, when he suggested that his beloved Texans needed to get serious about finding a backup QB. Pendergast just wanted to talk about football.
At the top of Pendergast’s list of suggestions for potential backup QBs was none other than Kaepernick, a two-time division champ who came within a few plays of winning the Super Bowl in 2013. Even if the unsigned 29-year-old can no longer be counted among the league’s elite, last year he threw a respectable 2,241 yards, including 16 touchdowns, and ran for another 468 yards. In other words, for Pendergast, Kaep checks all the boxes Coach Bill O’Brien needs in a play caller; current backup Tom Savage, who was benched after the first game of the season, simply cannot.
Although Pendergast was talking football, not politics, the social media blowback after the first column was fierce. So he penned another, this time with a headline to make his intentions totally clear: “For football reasons, the Texans should sign Colin Kaepernick.”
Pendergast wrote in October 3 column: “The inclusion of his name, the name of Public Enemy No. 1 in star spangled sports turned my take from something that Texans fans generally agree with—the need for a mobile backup to [starting quarterback Deshaun] Watson—to a polarizing ‘hot take’ that turned my Twitter timeline into a smoldering pile of political and racial fury.”
Reached on his way to his daily radio broadcast earlier this week, Pendergast acknowledged that the reaction to his column caught him off guard. “As a fan, I tend to stay agnostic when it comes to politics,” he says. “It’s likely that Colin Kaepernick never plays for the NFL again, but I find it more interesting that there was a time when he could have knelt in the middle of the field and still would have been signed.”
With marquee defensive end J.J. Watt and defensive stalwart Whitney Mercilus already out for the season with injuries, Pendergast maintains that Coach O’Brien would do himself a favor to give Kaepernick another look. He rightly points out that if Houston wants to amass a winning record, it needs to continue to nurture the offensive spark provided by the rookie QB Deshaun Watson, who six games in has tied a league record with fifteen touchdown throws, and rushed for more than 200 yards. “If Deshaun Watson goes down, their season is sunk,” Pendergast says. “I feel even stronger that Kaepernick is the best choice.”
This isn’t the first time Kaep has been floated as a potential fix for the Texans’ quarterback woes. Back in April, after Dallas Cowboy Tony Romo signaled that he would retire rather than take snaps for the Houston franchise, sports blog SB Nation ranked Kaepernick the best choice for the team in 2017. They reasoned that his seniority and skill set would offer O’Brien the sort of “dual-threat” that could complement the receiving corps led by DeAndre Hopkins as well as running back Lamar Miller.
Of course, once the Texans drafted Watson fresh off his collegiate national championship with the Clemson Tigers, pressure to bring in Kaepernick as a play caller evaporated. Although there was initial uncertainty of how the Heisman runner-up Watson would perform as a pro, the deal that allowed the Texans to nab him—trading the $74 million QB washout Brock Osweiler to Cleveland, and the loss of two future first round draft picks—shows that the front office clearly envisioned a franchise player.
And it looks like Watson could be on his way to a successful career in Texas—if he can remain healthy. It was an injury to the speedy Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in that 30-point loss to Houston that first prompted Pendergast to envision Kaepernick as a Texan. A wave of schadenfreude hit as he watched Mariota’s flat-footed replacement Matt Cassell flounder, completing just four of ten passes and throwing two interceptions. “That would have been Savage coming in for Watson,” he says. After the Tennessee-Houston game, in a unlikely decision that many national sportswriters—including Pendergast—believe pushed Kaepernick to make his complaint against the NFL, the Titans signed Brandon Weeden as their third-string quarterback. It’s worth noting the Texans released Weeden, who had not started a game since 2015, in early September. “It’s really crazy how intertwined it all is,” Pendergast marvels.
Weeden is just one of several mediocre quarterbacks rewarded with contracts this fall, while Kaepernick has been left in limbo. Kaepernick’s complaint argues that NFL owners have blackballed him due to his stance on social justice and police violence, depriving him of rightful employment. Representing Kaepernick is Hollywood attorney Mark Garagos, who has represented actress Winona Rider, the late pop star Michael Jackson, and singer Chris Brown. Tens of millions of dollars in lost income are at stake, not to mention the future of the collective bargaining agreement itself, but the fact remains that collusion among the 32 NFL owners is going to be tough to prove—though President Trump inadvertently provided traction for Kaepernick’s grievance by taking credit for his current unemployed status, potential evidence of the alleged conspiracy.
Despite the fact that the complaint could detonate what’s left of his client’s career, the lawyer Garagos put out the following statement advertising his availability: “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.”
In that case, a locker at NRG Stadium might be a mutually beneficial alternative to arbitration. Although it’s hard to imagine signing Kaepernick would go down easy, the fact remains that Texans owner Bob McNair, who reportedly donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee, defended his team after the president called protesting players “sons of bitches” at rally in Alabama on September 22. “The comments by the president were divisive and counterproductive to what our country needs right now,” McNair declared. “I hope the reaction from our players results in positive action for our league, our community and our country as a whole to make a positive difference in our society.”
If that’s the sort of player McNair wants to see in a Texans uniform, he could do worse than Kaep.