This is the story of how a potential reconciliation between Colin Kaepernick and the NFL disintegrated into accusations and mistrust. It’s told from the viewpoints of Kaepernick and his legal team, the NFL attorneys in charge of negotiating the deal for the league, an NFLPA at a curious remove from the center of the action and a host of sources close to the situation. After an extraordinary week of cynicism and possibilities, what remained after the doomed workout on Nov. 16 was a set of dueling narratives: one held that the NFL was never truly serious about a Kaepernick return; the other held that Kaepernick was so unwilling to compromise to a reasonable, professional standard that he closed the last, best chance to resume his NFL career. It all began two weeks ago, when the NFL informed Kaepernick’s team that the league would hold a workout for the quarterback.
TUESDAY, NOV. 12, 2019
Colin Kaepernick’s re-entry into the NFL universe was the result of what could only be called a fantastic coincidence. According to league sources, a statement that Kaepernick’s team sent on Oct. 10 reiterating his readiness to return to the NFL — a statement that news outlets tweeted and Kaepernick retweeted — caught the attention of commissioner Roger Goodell. The post landed on receptive ears for two reasons. The first was that important business partners such as Jay-Z and respected advisers such as legendary sociologist Harry Edwards were pressuring Goodell to find a path back for Kaepernick. The second and more important reason was that the league’s football operations department alerted Goodell to a piece of news long considered unlikely: two teams were legitimately interested in Kaepernick.
The confluence of events provided an opportunity for Goodell to prove his own stated position that Kaepernick was not being blacklisted for the past two-and-a-half seasons, even though the NFL had settled out of court with Kaepernick when he sued it for collusion. In the weeks following the Oct. 10 statement, the NFL’s football operations team discussed with Goodell the feasibility of reaching out to Kaepernick. Goodell ultimately approved it. “Inside and outside,” an NFL source says, “the thought was, ‘Let’s provide him the opportunity.’”
Kaepernick’s camp maintained that he had been out of work for three full seasons for reasons nothing to do with football and everything to do with his politics regarding social justice and his on-field protests. Still, the NFL’s strategy in approaching Kaepernick was to concentrate narrowly on football. To sources both outside the league office and the Kaepernick team, this was the NFL’s first mistake; the only way to get Kaepernick and the league to trust one another was to confront their acrimonious history with diplomacy, so both sides might more easily believe each was entering the workout with legitimate motives. “To say we’re going to make this about football is one of the dumbest things you can say,” a source close to the situation says. “It’s not a big deal. It’s the whole deal, because the reason he’s not playing isn’t about football. Everyone knows he can play. It’s the other stuff. You have to deal with the other stuff.”
Instead, the league focused on the details of the potential workout itself. The league believed that holding individual workouts for the two teams that expressed interest in Kaepernick would have resulted in a crush of media attention that might have made both teams reluctant to proceed. So it decided to engineer an unprecedented league-hosted workout for an individual player. “It was the commissioner’s idea, no doubt about it,” a league source says. “This was a way to deal with it without the torrent of media information, the level of distraction. Bringing him in to a single team would have them bear the brunt of all of that media attention.”
On Nov. 12, Kaepernick’s agent Jeff Nalley was in San Francisco, having attended the Seahawks-49ers Monday night thriller the night before. Before heading to the airport for a flight to Texas, he received a missed call alert on his phone from a number he did not recognize. When he returned the call, it was Dave Gardi, the NFL’s senior vice president for football operations: the NFL would hold a workout for Colin Kaepernick. The details were brief and rigid: The workout would be conducted at the Falcons’ training facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, about an hour northeast of Atlanta. There would be no media. The date would be Saturday, Nov. 16. The invitation also came with a hard deadline: Kaepernick had two hours to accept. Nalley called Kaepernick, who then called his best friend, Panthers safety Eric Reid. Kaepernick’s legal team convened for a conference call.
The Kaepernick team, led by Nalley, Mark Geragos and Ben Meiselas of the law firm Geragos & Geragos, was stunned. Reid was immediately dismissive. It had to be a publicity stunt, he thought. Meiselas was circumspect: “It came out of the blue. There was no warning or indication anything like that would happen.” Kaepernick and the NFL hadn’t communicated since the two sides settled their multimillion-dollar collusion lawsuit in February. For all the turnover at the quarterback position during the first months of the 2019 season, as frontline starters such as Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford fell to injury, Nalley’s phone was silent.
In fact, no decision-making member of NFL personnel had inquired about Kaepernick since 2017, when NFL executive and former safety Troy Vincent had arranged a springtime, in-person meeting between Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Kaepernick. Later that summer, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Kaepernick spoke by telephone.
Given the lack of communication with the NFL for 10 months, and with only two hours to make a decision, the Kaepernick team felt strong-armed. This did not feel like a potential reconciliation. His team also did a little reconnaissance and believed the mystery teams to be Atlanta and Detroit, information it did not find particularly credible. It also made no sense to the Kaepernick team to hold a league-wide workout for just two teams. In three offseason free-agent cycles, Atlanta had never shown interest in Kaepernick; Detroit had lost quarterback Matthew Stafford to a back injury weeks earlier and instead of inquiring about Kaepernick was starting backup Jeff Driskel.
Kaepernick’s team was wary. With the two-hour deadline approaching, Nalley and Meiselas were on a call with Gardi and Ken Fiore, the league’s vice president for player personnel. It was the team’s third call of the day with the NFL — extraordinary in of itself because executives at their level would normally never be involved in a player workout. Meiselas said too many issues existed to turn around a workout in three-and-a-half days: Who was going to be at the workout? Which teams were going to be there? Who would Kaepernick be throwing to? Why did the workout need to be on a Saturday, when high-level NFL personnel were either scouting college players or preparing for the next day’s NFL games? Why couldn’t the workout be held on the following Tuesday — the day of the week when most free-agent workouts occur? Why did it have to be in Atlanta?
The NFL rejected the Kaepernick team’s request to change the dates. The Kaepernick team thought the offer took on a “take it or leave it” characteristic. The tone of the call felt procedural. According to sources from the Kaepernick team, Gardi said he was not authorized to make alterations to the offer. He was, in effect, delivering a message.
If the Kaepernick team was uneasy, the league did not consider its communications to be untoward. Saturday was chosen because the workout required an available NFL facility –all of them would be in use on a Tuesday, a regular league-wide workday. Saturday was also better than Tuesday because coaches and GMs would not collectively leave their teams during the week to attend a workout away from their facility, especially a workout as potentially loaded as this. Atlanta was the location because the Falcons offered their complex. On the call, a Kaepernick source recalls asking, “If Saturday was such a magical day, why not push it to the following Saturday?” That, the source said on the call, would give each side time to have its questions answered. The NFL refused. “Like any other free agent, they find out when the workout is, it’s on short notice, and they get on a plane and get there,” an NFL source says. “We thought the speed of the workout was for Colin’s benefit. There aren’t that many weeks left. We did not see the value in having some drawn-out, dramatic event.”
To the league, there was no reason to believe the invitation was illegitimate. If Kaepernick wanted to play, here was his chance. Despite the events of the past three years, the NFL believed it could offer Kaepernick a legitimate workout based solely on football merits. It was an attitude that reflected the power and, some Kaepernick sources say, the arrogance of a $15 billion behemoth. The NFL expected its sudden offer to be accepted at face value, even though no team had asked Kaepernick to throw a football in three years. A Kaepernick source asks, “Is all supposed to be forgotten because they finally called?”
Questions went unanswered. As questions went unanswered, trust waned. The parameters were set. Kaepernick’s team made two requests: that the process be legitimate, and that it receive a personnel list of which teams and their representatives would attend. The Kaepernick team then agreed to the workout, ultimately for one reason.
“Because,” Meiselas says, “he’s been wanting a legitimate chance for three years.”
Despite the concerns regarding the NFL’s motives, the one person who was generally optimistic about the workout was Kaepernick. He had been training in anonymity in New York for nearly three years, five days a week. He felt he was in great shape. To throw in an NFL environment for the first time since December 2016 was exciting. He sent out a tweet expressing his eagerness for Saturday.
“Colin had been waiting for this moment. He’s not going to leave any stone unturned,” says a member of his camp. “His plan is to go for it. He’s going to leave it all out there? Are you kidding?”
The two sides agreed the workout would remain confidential. One member of the Kaepernick team suggested a confidentiality agreement to insure against media leaks. “We as the NFL are not going public with this,” a Kaepernick team member recalls being told on the call. “But we cannot control the 32 teams.” Almost immediately after the call, NFL writers began receiving a text message from the league telling them to be on the lookout for an important email. Many writers believed the email would pertain to the league and troubled wide receiver Antonio Brown, but minutes later, the email came: Colin Kaepernick would work out for the NFL on Saturday.
The Kaepernick team was furious.
“They didn’t give the 32 NFL teams a heads-up, but they gave the media one?” a Kaepernick source says. “Once they betrayed us on the confidentiality agreement, we knew what this was.”
WEDNESDAY, NOV. 13
The NFLPA found out about Saturday’s workout when the rest of the world did. It received no advance notice from the league as a courtesy, nor from the Kaepernick camp, a circle of mistrust. The NFLPA and Kaepernick had traded slights dating back to when Kaepernick was a star with the 49ers and opted out of the NFLPA’s player-wide licensing agreement. Even three years later, no one in the Kaepernick camp had forgotten how the NFLPA failed to come to his defense when an anonymous league executive told Bleacher Report that Kaepernick was the most hated man in the NFL since Rae Carruth, the Panthers wide receiver who at the time was serving a prison sentence of 18 to 24 years for ordering the murder of his pregnant girlfriend.
Nevertheless, according to both NFLPA and Kaepernick sources, the union offered its services in advance of the workout. The Kaepernick team declined the offer. But while the players’ association would have no formal role in the workout, it would at least send former player Lester Archambeau to Atlanta to represent the union and have eyes on the ground.
Kaepernick felt comfortable betting on himself to impress a room of scouts, but his camp was uneasy about a workout that was made public when its details were not finalized. “You shouldn’t go over the deal before there’s a deal,” a source from the Kaepernick team says.
The trust issues that began to emerge on Tuesday became a floodgate by Wednesday. The NFL had not yet provided a personnel list, and the reason was that none had officially signed on. Then the NFL sent word to Meiselas that it would not be providing a rolling list of team attendees and their representatives, after all. According to another member of Kaepernick’s team, the league told his camp it did not renege on its promise, because it had never agreed to the provision.
By midafternoon, no teams had publicly attached themselves to the workout. Along the backchannel of private conversations between agents and team officials, it was clear the workout was a league event. Even after the announcement of the workout, Nalley’s phone remained silent — not a single team asking if his guy was in shape or what to expect. There was confusion at personnel offices around the league about who was in charge. Without the teams enthusiastically endorsing a thaw between themselves and Kaepernick, or a single owner blessing the possibility of Kaepernick’s return, it was increasingly difficult to envision what Saturday could look like. As one agent says, “Leagues don’t sign players. Teams do.” The credibility of the event began showing signs of crumbling, isolating Goodell and placing a spotlight on what was privately around the league being called a failure of leadership.
Regardless of Goodell’s best intentions, the 32 teams had to be invested for Saturday to work, and so far, they weren’t. This absence of any ceremony — a public acknowledgement that the league, the teams and Kaepernick were willing to put the past behind them, and he would again be allowed to survive or fail primarily on his football merits — provided perhaps the biggest red flag of the entire week for Kaepernick’s camp.
There was no more seismic event in the NFL over the past three years than Kaepernick. The kneeling issue split the country. It fractured the players. Black athletes on the same side of several political issues were splintered into competing factions: those who wanted any negotiations with team owners over social justice partnerships to be contingent upon lifting the silent ban on Kaepernick; and those who felt Kaepernick had squandered his leadership opportunities. President Donald Trump involved himself in the NFL protest story and shook the league and its 70% black labor force to its core when he criticized players who kneeled during the anthem, calling them “sons of bitches” and suggesting that teams fire them. To maintain labor peace, even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took a knee on the field before a game. Now, the NFL and Kaepernick were days away from what appeared to be a reconciliation and the teams were silent, the owners were silent, and most of all the commissioner, Roger Goodell, was silent.
Sources on the NFL football operations side say the event was to be solely focused on football. But was that realistic given the animosity that existed, the wariness of teams to view him as a viable option? Other league sources say it might have helped to employ a mediator like Harry Edwards, who had written an extensive analysis advising the league to avoid turning Kaepernick into a “martyr” rather than a “model.”
“It was not about the external noise. This was to be a football-centric exercise, full stop,” an NFL source says. “He wanted a workout. He said he was ready to go. We set that up.”
The silence of the owners undermined the workout’s legitimacy. Could the symbol of the most divisive issue in the game be showcased without ironclad buy-in from the teams? Could a workout be legitimate without at least the sign-off of the most powerful owners in the game, Dallas’ Jerry Jones and New England’s Robert Kraft? Wouldn’t Art Rooney II and John Mara, scions of the two most legendary football families, give cover to other teams it was acceptable to sign Kaepernick? If backroom negotiations between Goodell and Jay-Z — the rap mogul having been criticized for partnering with the NFL while Kaepernick was denied employment — were truly fueling an honest workout, wouldn’t it be beneficial for Goodell to come forward? Where was the commissioner?
Some NFL sources disagreed strongly that the workout was rudderless. Dave Gardi was a respected senior executive with the league. The lack of diplomacy was mitigated by the most important, bottom-line fact: It was happening. The league was holding a workout for Colin Kaepernick. It was spending money to do it. That, league sources say, should have superseded the lack of bouquets and hugs, mediation and détentes.
“If Roger was out there, it would be viewed as self-serving,” an NFL source says. “You’re sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The intention was to give Colin what he wanted. Was he looking for an engraved invitation to come down? We were just trying to keep the media stuff to a minimum and leave it to the football side.”
Furthermore, the idea that the NFL was doing something for Kaepernick it had never done for anyone in the modern history of the league was, by definition, league sources say, a good-faith opportunity. Some NFL personnel grew aggravated by the suggestion that the league was being underhanded. They expected to be trusted. “There was nothing preventing them from setting up their own workout,” an NFL source says. “He and his representatives could have done that at any time.”
Still, by Wednesday afternoon, hope began building that Saturday might work out after all: The league told media outlets that at least a half-dozen teams planned to send a representative to Atlanta, with more making arrangements to attend. The Kaepernick team was unsure: Without a personnel list, teams could be sending interns. Meanwhile, lawyers began negotiating granular details of the workout. The two sides agreed to let Kaepernick fly in his own team of receivers. According to league sources, NFL attorneys rejected the Kaepernick team’s request for a camera crew inside the Falcons’ facility, but they would be provided with footage of the workout.
The league created a special waiver release form, combining elements of previous standard NFL waivers, which was designed to protect the league and the Falcons — at whose facility the workout was taking place — against injury at this specific workout. The waiver the NFL sent the Kaepernick team answered one outstanding question: Former Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin was named on the second page of the release and indemnified. He would be running the workout.
The Kaepernick team took issue with the opening paragraph and paragraph No. 7 of the special waiver because both paragraphs created a wide range of rights that Kaepernick would potentially be forfeiting beyond injury.
According to the NFL, the two sides had momentum. The Kaepernick team, NFL sources say, acknowledged receipt of the edited documents and told the NFL’s lawyers that whatever changes needed to be made to the waiver were “minor.”
THURSDAY, NOV. 14
Kaepernick arrived in Atlanta and through a connection from one of his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers, received permission to use the football field at the Charles R. Drew High School in the Atlanta suburb of Riverdale to prepare. Kaepernick was already familiar with the city. A month earlier, on Oct. 19, he’d held a Know Your Rights camp in downtown Atlanta for 450 youth.
The NFL announced that Hue Jackson, the former Raiders and Browns head coach, would join Joe Philbin in running the workout. Jackson, who was not on the original waiver form, would later tell ESPN’s First Take he had been enthusiastic about the workout, and as coach of the Raiders he’d wanted to draft Kaepernick as a rookie in 2011. Still, the Kaepernick camp viewed him with suspicion: This was the same Hue Jackson who, as coach of Cleveland in 2017, said he had no interest in Kaepernick as a free agent and that his off-field protests were a factor. Later that summer, Jackson discouraged his team from kneeling after protester Heather Heyer was killed Aug. 12 by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. in Charlottesville, Virginia. Twelve players knelt anyway before the Browns’ preseason game against the Giants a week later. Also concerning for the Kaepernick team was that Jackson was being represented by Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s company. Jackson was a good football man, but he was not considered neutral. According to sources, Goodell, who had not spoken publicly about the workout or reached out personally or through intermediaries to the Kaepernick team, called Jackson personally to arrange for him to conduct the workout.
In what appeared to be another missed opportunity for communication and transparency, Jackson and Kaepernick never spoke directly. Jackson said he dealt primarily with Nalley, telling First Take that the attitude surrounding direct communication with Kaepernick was, “We’ll get to it.” They never did.
By late afternoon, the league office said 11 teams would be sending representatives to the workout, which should have, it believed at the time, calmed all fears that it was just for show. Goodell that night appeared at the Paley Center for Media’s International Council Summit in New York with CBS broadcaster James Brown for a program discussing the NFL’s 100th anniversary. With Kaepernick less than two days away from the workout, and most teams pledging their attendance but refusing to publicly endorse it, Goodell took no questions. “Roger and I are going to stick to the topic here,” Brown said, according to Deadline.com. “It would take us all day to deal with what the breaking news is.” Even with Dallas and New England announcing they would not attend, the league’s most anticipated event expected the vast majority of teams. And yet the NFL, insisting the workout was legitimate, still had no one willing to take public ownership for it — not even the commissioner, the person most responsible for setting its wheels in motion.
Hue Jackson contends that Colin Kaepernick’s scheduled workout at the Atlanta Falcons facility could have been a success if Kap showed up.
FRIDAY, NOV. 15
That left the lawyers. While Kaepernick was practicing indoors at Georgia Tech because of a torrential downpour, league attorney Larry Ferazani fully expected to have a deal done. With one day before the workout, the lead negotiators for both camps were now working together. Ferazani was well-respected by the Kaepernick camp. One called him “the voice of reason” over at NFL headquarters. He and Meiselas had crisscrossed the country together litigating the Kaepernick lawsuit. Each said they viewed Friday optimistically, but both were beginning to harbor deep reservations. NFL sources say the Kaepernick team did not promptly respond to its questions regarding the waiver, losing precious time as Saturday approached. The Kaepernick team was confounded as to why the NFL would not adopt the standard injury waiver, amend its language, nor allow independent cameras.
With a better climate of trust, perhaps the two parties could have worked out the details, which would become nuclear, and ultimately fatal: At issue for the Kaepernick team was a clause in the waiver stipulating the quarterback waive his rights to any and all claims stemming from the workout. This was a major sticking point, because the million-dollar question any team would have was whether Kaepernick would kneel should he be signed to a roster. If he said he would, and eventually no team chose to sign him, the NFL would have exposed itself to a second collusion lawsuit. But by signing the waiver, Kaepernick would have forfeited his rights to pursue an action.
League sources say the NFL was viewing the waiver only for injury liability and had no sinister intention of using that or other similarly broad clauses in the waiver as a backdoor attempt to get Kaepernick to forfeit his rights. League sources say a true collusion case couldn’t have been stopped by that waiver. “If that’s all it took,” a league source says, “we would’ve done something like this two years ago and saved ourselves a bunch of money.” The Kaepernick team’s position was direct: If injury liability was the only motive, why wouldn’t the NFL agree to its own standard injury waiver form? “It would have been malpractice for an attorney to allow his client to sign that document,” Meiselas says.
The details, once negotiable, were becoming impediments. By late afternoon Friday, the Kaepernick team began thinking about Plan B, not as a bargaining chip, but because Kaepernick wanted to guarantee he didn’t leave Atlanta without conducting a workout for all to see.
SATURDAY, NOV. 16
Five hours before the scheduled 3 p.m. workout, the mirror Kaepernick had held up to the United States for the previous three years was reflected at the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch. Three protesters stood on the right side of the complex’s entrance, American flags and signs fixed into the grass. Two Kaepernick supporters sat to the left of the entrance. By noon, the number of supporters swelled. Television cameras set up across Falcon Parkway.
By 12:30, the waiver issue appeared to be resolved. Both lawyers were in town: Meiselas took a red-eye from San Francisco, Ferazani the morning flight from JFK. The Kaepernick team said if the NFL would agree to its standard injury form, the same one signed the day before to work out at Georgia Tech, Kaepernick would sign it. The NFL demanded its own form be used, and the negotiation continued.
But no movement was being made on Kaepernick’s request for independent filming. The issue for him was trust and transparency. The fear: the NFL would manipulate the footage and send to the media and the teams not in attendance an edited version highlighting his mistakes — bad throws, stumbles, poor footwork — as proof he was no longer NFL material.
The NFL team believed that fear to be completely unfounded, and offered Kaepernick’s team the raw footage immediately following the workout. The league’s lawyers said they would allow Kaepernick’s team to sit with the NFL camera crew. The Fritz Pollard Alliance would be in attendance. There would be no “rigging” of footage. The Kaepernick team did not budge, believing it should have the right to film its client’s workout.
“The focus was on the workout,” an NFL source says. “If we wanted to turn it into a publicity stunt, it would have been on NFL Network. It would have been on ESPN. We’re celebrating our 100th anniversary. Why would we bring this upon ourselves?”
Says another NFL source: “The Falcons were opening up their facility and we wanted to be respectful. … If you look at what we were willing to do, their concerns don’t hold water. They could stop the video whenever they liked, and we’d give them the raw footage. It has as much legitimacy as their concerns about the waiver.”
The league questioned Kaepernick’s motives. What was the big deal about footage? Was the demand for footage just part of a marketing ploy?
By 1 p.m., more than 100 Kaepernick supporters lined the left side of the complex entrance, while anti-Kaepernick passersbys honked in support of his three protesters. When the NFL rejected the request for independent filming, the Kaepernick team wanted to invite the media. Kaepernick’s team did not trust the NFL to be the only official eyes on the workout. Furious that Kaepernick’s team was now “fundamentally altering the agreement,” the NFL refused. Around 1:15, the Kaepernick team began texting its Know Your Rights contacts on the ground to be alert to a change of plans.
By 2 p.m., a steady stream of black SUVs began approaching the gate. The teams were arriving. A caravan of media lined up to enter the workout facility grounds. Around 120 Kaepernick supporters, including several Kappa fraternity brothers, took pictures and awaited his arrival. A member of the Falcons’ security staff held a clipboard with the names of attending teams and their representatives — the personnel list the Kaepernick team requested on Tuesday and never received. Hue Jackson was in the building, preparing for the workout with four free-agent wide receivers the NFL had flown in who were hoping to impress league scouts.
Reputations were on the line. Trust collapsed and the old resentments reinforced the old walls — Kaepernick remained convinced the NFL was never serious about having him back in the league and that the entire week was just a ploy to get him to waive his rights; the NFL believed Kaepernick was gaming it all along and that he didn’t really want to play in the NFL. NFL personnel were exhausted by the event. “What did else did he want,” a league source says, “to have Roger pick him up at the airport?”
With cars lined up awaiting entry into the Falcons facility, Ferazani says he received a two-word text message from Meiselas at 2:28 p.m.: “We tried.”
It was over. The Kaepernick team released a statement that it would be moving its workout to another location to be announced shortly. According to NFL sources, 25 teams were on site. Unbeknownst to the arriving teams, the gates opened for a show that was already closed.
At 2:50 p.m., Jackson said he received word that the Kaepernick team had moved the venue to the Charles R. Drew High School in Riverdale, at 4 p.m. It was the same Drew High School where Kaepernick had practiced two days earlier. Reporters, fans and television trucks raced down Interstate 285 to the high school.
Inside, Ferazani called the league office to relay the news, then thanked the NFL talent evaluators, telling them they were welcome to watch the wide receivers they had flown in to work out, could go to the relocated workout or go home. Though the school was just 10 minutes from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Hue Jackson went straight to the airport and went home.
Without the leadership, mediation and true buy-in from the teams, the workout was doomed. Jerry Jones, the game’s most prolific dealmaker, never endorsed the workout. He did not send personnel to Atlanta, appearing to take a bleak view of what occurred.
“That situation from the get-go probably had a lot more that wasn’t about football involved in it,” Jones told The Dallas Morning News, “and consequently we got the results of that dynamic.”
Jessie Goree was hungry. As chairwoman for the Clayton County School District and a member of the school board, she had been at a school retreat and then attended a meeting. Which one? “The only one,” she says. “Delta Sigma Theta.” Her plan was to head over to Supreme Fish Delight on Norman Drive when, at 3:45 p.m., the first of a furious series of texts came in asking whether the news racing through town was true: Colin Kaepernick was going to work out at Drew High School in Riverdale. Her district.
“None of us knew. We had board members who were mad because they didn’t know,” she says. “If it was planned, I would have known.”
Rumors were flying. There was talk that Kaepernick had contacted the Buford City School District, right down the road from Flowery Branch, but was rejected. However, according to Kerri Leland, communications director of Buford Public Schools, no request was made by the Kaepernick team. Another rumor says Kaepernick contacted Atlanta Public Schools and was also denied. The district did not return an ESPN request for comment.
This much was true: Kaepernick’s team was scrambling. Time was running short and they were running out of options, but Kaepernick had resolved not to leave Atlanta without a public workout. The team made a final call to return to Drew, where he had worked out on Thursday, and received permission. As more texts followed, Goree sprang into action. She called Morcease J. Beasley, Clayton County superintendent of schools, but his cell phone was off. She called the deputy superintendent, Ralph Simpson. No good.
Finally, she called Thomas Y. Trawick Jr., the Clayton County School District chief of safety and security. He would know for crowd control purposes. He did not know, either.
By 4 p.m., her granddaughter called and needed a flute for school. Before she headed to the store, Simpson called back and told her the rumors were indeed true: He had authorized Kaepernick to work out at the high school. She was on her way to Drew Stadium.
“My granddaughter was more important than Colin Kaepernick, though,” she says. “I figured I’d get the flute, then stop on over after.”
At Drew, several members of Kaepernick’s staff wearing black No. 7 jerseys worked the grounds. A row of vans parked on the track, ringing the football field. An attendant at the gate required a signature and requested an email address for entry.
The Panthers were hosting the Falcons in Charlotte the next day, but Eric Reid was on the field, at Drew, supporting Kaepernick on his own time. Four receivers whom Kaepernick had flown in — Bruce Ellington, Brice Butler, Jordan Veasy and Ari Werts — warmed up. Kaepernick, wearing a T-shirt that read “Kunta Kinte” — the character from Alex Haley’s novel/biopic “Roots” — stretched next to the track. About 200 fans lined the fence.
At 4:38 p.m., 98 minutes after he was supposed to have worked out at Flowery Branch, Kaepernick took the field to cheers. San Francisco, Kansas City, the Jets, Tennessee, Philadelphia and Washington had representatives there, as did Detroit — one of the two teams that purportedly showed enough interest in Kaepernick to prompt Goodell to greenlight the workout. Still, some of the representatives did not want it revealed that they attended Kaepernick’s Drew workout.
Kaepernick threw for roughly 58 minutes — short balls, rollouts, deep routes. His team live streamed the event to satisfy his desire for transparency. When it ended, he signed autographs for fans and delivered a message to the NFL: “I’ve been ready for three years. I’ve been denied for three years. We all know why. I came out here and showed it today in front of everybody. We have nothing to hide. So we’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running. Stop running from the truth. Stop running from the people.”
Nalley addressed the bank of reporters, reinforcing his initial fear from earlier in the week that the NFL initiated an opportunity but it wasn’t legitimate. “It’s important to remember that no team asked for this,” Nalley said. “This came from the league office.”
Says another Kaepernick source: “This thing had been pretty much dead. They [the league] were the ones who gave it CPR.”
Within hours of the Kaepernick team’s departure from Drew, the NFL distributed to various media contacts a flurry of documents that seemed designed to promote the position that Kaepernick’s gamesmanship killed the deal. The league office sent a copy of Wednesday’s waiver form, which named Philbin but not Jackson, the standard rookie waiver from the NFL combine and, most disturbing to the Kaepernick team, Kaepernick’s signed 2011 rookie waiver from his combine year. The purpose was to show that the documents were not only similar in nature, unworthy of being deal breakers, but contracts Kaepernick already had signed.
It was an approach, NFLPA sources say, that reflected the NFL’s belief that its enormous media advantage could muscle Kaepernick into a disadvantageous public position. In actuality, the documents in several ways strengthened the Kaepernick team’s weeklong grievance that the negotiation needed to be private. The workout waiver was different from a combine waiver because the latter waived rights for a finite period of time, while the former forfeited Kaepernick’s rights to sue against a collusive act in perpetuity.
Moreover, the traditional combine waiver is designed to address prospective professionals not actively in the NFL, not veteran quarterbacks who have a contentious relationship and history of litigation with the league. The league, a Players Coalition source says, didn’t appreciate the history of the two sides, and instead of treating the waiver negotiations as occurring between equals, took the reductive position that Kaepernick was just another player.
The waiver Kaepernick signed Feb. 24, 2011, occurred during the NFL lockout, and its conditions no longer exist. The new labor agreement was signed in July 2011, and as part of the negotiation, the waiver form Kaepernick signed eight years ago was dissolved, replaced by a shorter, simpler form. Furthermore, from the Kaepernick team’s perspective, releasing information from Kaepernick’s record exposed the NFL to a lawsuit for violation of the league’s personnel records policy. That the NFL sent out these documents to media confirmed for the Kaepernick team what it feared all along: The NFL was more interested in winning the public relations battle.
“Good faith means acting in a manner that represents the reasons why you initiated contact with us,” says a source in Kaepernick’s camp. “You say you’re trying to help him, but you don’t allow him to film his own workout independently and you place unrealistic conditions in the waiver, and you don’t even leak, you announce the workout before a deal was ever in place. Is that really trying to help him get back on the field?”
On Sunday, 24 hours after the workout, Nalley sent the workout footage to all 32 teams, and thus far, to silence.
Nalley says Kaepernick is considering another workout for teams, perhaps at the league meetings March 29 through April 1 in Palm Beach, Florida, where all 32 team owners, coaches and general managers will be present. He also suggested the 2020 NFL combine in Indianapolis, but Kaepernick rejected the idea on the grounds he did not want to upstage an important moment for prospective NFL rookies.
A stunning week of legal documents and shifting venues resulted in more retrenchment than enlightenment, previous positions perhaps even more hardened than when the week began.
“A lot of it reinforced the concerns to bring him aboard in the first place,” an NFL source says. “It would be hard for us as a league to do another [workout] again. It would really be up to him to change this. He could say he’s a football player and we’re not going to have the other stuff. It was an incredible disappointment. I really believe this was a good-faith effort and I believe there would have been a positive result.”
Without the leadership, mediation and true buy-in from the teams, the workout was doomed. Goodell has not spoken publicly about the event he greenlit. The remaining void has the Kaepernick team believing that the league had never been serious. For Kaepernick, the week was an attempt by the NFL to secure a legal maneuver. “They wanted cover for their teams,” a source says. “Otherwise, the teams would have taken the lead to invite him in.”
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