Colin Kaepernick's NFL workout was a debacle because teams care about profits, not winning games

Donning a Kunta Kinte T-shirt, the former quarterback held his own quasi-audition because he didn't trust the league to do right by him. Why would he?
Image: Colin Kaepernick NFL Workout
Colin Kaepernick during a private NFL workout held at Charles R Drew high school on Nov. 16, 2019 in Riverdale, Ga.Carmen Mandato / Getty Images
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By Dave Schilling

Colin Kaepernick wants a job. Colin Kaepernick deserves a job. The first point should not be in question, and the second should not be up for debate. And yet, three years after the controversy over his career in the NFL started, we’re still arguing about him.

The latest volleys started after Kaepernick made himself available for a workout — a kind of preliminary audition, but something less than a full-fledged tryout that would result in an offer — over the weekend to which more than 24 of the NFL’s 32 teams said they would send representatives. (Who those representatives were, we don’t know ... but they were certainly not key members of any team’s football operations staff, since Saturday is the day before these teams have actual games.)

According to ESPN reporter Howard Bryant, contrary to normal circumstances, the NFL dictated to Kaepernick that there could be no press and no videotaping outside of the NFL's own production crew. With hardly any advance notice, Kaepernick — who has been unemployed since the 2016-17 season despite having led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl — was asked to appear for a highly unorthodox workout over which he would have no control while also signing a legally onerous waiver ahead of time.

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And so he bailed on their plan and held his own workout in a Kunta Kinte T-shirt. Because why should Colin Kaepernick trust the NFL at this point?

This is the fundamental question for any employee, whether it’s in football or at a marketing firm or a grocery store: Does my employer have my best interests in mind? Most of the time, they don’t. The first interest the employer serves is profit. If you are so inclined as to argue otherwise, then you fail to understand the basis of capitalism. Media companies lay off journalists to trim their bottom lines and raise their profit margins — or worse, as in the case of Deadspin, the parent company’s actions become so draconian that they passive-aggressively force their employees to leave en masse.

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This works in sports, too. Ostensibly, the hiring process for professional sports teams involves signing the best players available at each position, in the hopes that the team wins more games than it loses. Team success should then lead to more ticket and merchandise sales, and better TV ratings that lead to higher rights fees for their local broadcasts. Bad teams make less money; good teams make more.

But beyond wins and losses is perception, which allows demonstrably bad teams to still turn a profit. If potential customers believe that a team like the Cleveland Browns matters, despite their historic terribleness, the Browns can continue filling up their stadium with fans who know that they'll just get demolished. Brand loyalty is something that countless mediocre NFL teams — from the Browns to the Oakland Raiders to the Cincinnati Bengals — rely on year after year to keep themselves financially viable.

And, besides that, the NFL's revenue-sharing rules mean that, as long as the league as a whole is profitable, the individual teams will remain profitable as well.

Kaepernick threatens people's perception of the NFL, or at least that’s what the owners clearly believe, based on their collective disinterest in bringing him back into the league. When people like former NFL coach Rex Ryan talk about how they “don’t want the circus” in their locker room, they're not just talking about a ton of media coverage or even negative press. The NFL, by its very nature, is a circus at all times and its players are some of the most famous people in the country. Tom Brady, with his celebrity, history with scandals and controversial political associations, is a walking circus. He’s also one of the most successful quarterbacks in NFL history, despite all of that.

The “circus” Ryan referred to is not just a swell of reporters, because that comes with the territory and NFL public relations teams know how to deal with such things. The “circus” is code for the perception that the NFL is “anti-American” because of Kaepernick's stance against anti-black police brutality. Kaepernick’s mere presence, then, threatens the NFL’s perception among a segment of its fanbase — especially after the president's attacks on him.

That's why his football skills, either when he was first pushed out or today, are not the point, as Ryan said in his statements on ESPN. Even if the reports from the workout were positive, the league will never really budge. Kaepernick is an impediment to the one thing the NFL actually cares about, which is profit. If ratings go down, they lose money in rights fees. If brand loyalty craters because some people don’t want to see an outspoken black man assert his right to free speech, then attendance goes down.

Those bad teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Denver Broncos that would probably benefit from a veteran quarterback who could help them win might, because of winning, finally face the full measure of the open market instead of being propped up by revenue sharing (which is closed-ecosystem socialism). These teams would rather continue being terrible, while ensuring a steady stream of multibillion-dollar revenue, because the fans doesn’t actually matter that much. Winning actually doesn’t matter that much. Profit matters.

So I ask again: Why should Colin Kaepernick trust the NFL? Why should you, as a paying customer?

Or ask yourself a different question. What would you rather have: a consistently fun, quality football team to root for with a chance to win thanks to a rejuvenated Kaepernick; or a terrible team that remains seemingly aligned with your politics? I’m certain there are actual Bengals fans who would rather go 0-16 every year than sign Kap; I'm just not sure they care about football or the Bengals.

The arguments about Kaepernick's career are not about the actual game of football. They never have been, and never will be. If they were, then the NFL wouldn’t have scheduled the workout for a Saturday. They would have allowed press to attend. They would have given Kaepernick more time to prepare. They would have allowed his team to tape it. Instead, they clearly wanted to make a mockery of this man, and then allow bloviators like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith to give them cover by making bad faith arguments on their behalf so that they could have legal and public cover to be rid of him once and for all.

Football doesn’t matter to the 32 owners of the NFL. So, why should it matter to you?

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