Former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart served as the NFL’s primary spokesperson during the anthem controversy in 2017. He has become the first current or former league executive to make a clear, candid statement about the league’s approach to free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Lockhart, in a column posted at CNN.com, argues that the Vikings should sign Kaepernick.
In the column, Lockhart summarizes the anthem controversy and Kaepernick’s role in launching the protests as a way to bring awareness to the mistreatment of African-Americans and people of color by law-enforcement authorities. Although not every single factual assertion is accurate (e.g., Kaepernick did not have “several” workouts with NFL teams . . . in reality, he has had no workouts with any teams but just a single visit to the Seahawks), Lockhart peels back the curtain on the things that transpired as the league and its franchises tried to grapple with the issues arising from the protests and Kaepernick’s lingering unemployment.
“Kaepernick was not blocked because the league wanted to punish him for setting off the protests,” Lockhart asserts. And he’s right, as it relates to the league office. But the teams ignored the league’s “prodding and pushing” to get Kaepernick a job — due directly to fears over fan reaction to hiring someone who set off the protests.
“Signing Kaepernick, they thought, was bad for business,” Lockhart writes. “An executive from one team that considered signing Kaepernick told me the team projected losing 20% of their season ticket holders if they did.”
So while the refusal to do business with Kaepernick may not have been go-to-bed-without-supper-style discipline because of his protests, he received adverse treatment (i.e., the cold shoulder) from 32 NFL teams because of his protests.
Lockhart explains that he justified the unemployment of Kaepernick at the time by focusing on the “millions” being spent by the league “to help address the problem of racial division in the country.” Lockhart admits in his column that he was wrong.
“I know now it was not enough just to spend money to make progress on the issue of racial disparities,” Lockhart writes. “That is crucial, but so are symbols that reflect that attempt at progress — and also the failure to reach it. And Colin Kaepernick became the symbol of black men being treated differently than white men in America.”
The column builds to Lockhart arguing that, given the presence of the Vikings in the epicenter of the current controversy, the Vikings should sign Kaepernick.
He’d definitely fit the offense; the Broncos flirted with trading for Kaepernick in 2016, when Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was Denver’s head coach. Still, it’s unlikely that Kaepernick would fit the budget. If offered a job as a backup to Kirk Cousins, one of the highest paid players in the league, Kaepernick would have to take far less than the $12 million that he made in his final season with the 49ers, or the $20 million that he reportedly wanted from the AAF or the XFL. Given the team’s salary-cap situation, the Vikings possibly would be limited to offering Kaepernick a deal for the veteran minimum.
Lockhart likely hasn’t analyzed the situation from a football perspective, however. He’s simply connecting two large dots between Minneapolis and the football team that plays there.
And so the better argument is that someone (not necessarily the Vikings) should offer Kaepernick a contract for 2020. Even then, the current inability to give him a physical or an in-person workout due to the pandemic complicates any effort to move quickly.
It doesn’t stop any team from making a statement immediately that Kaepernick is invited to visit, to submit to a physical to work out, and possibly to enter into contract negotiations as soon as facilities open. Given the broader societal circumstances and the fact that the issues for which Kaepernick protested have reached an obvious tipping point, the potential damage to a team’s bottom line should be far less now than it would have been in 2017.
Especially if, due to the pandemic, fans won’t be attending games, anyway.