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Tara Sullivan

Is Colin Kaepernick’s tryout a good-faith effort by the NFL, or a cover for exclusion?

Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since 2016.
Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since 2016.john g. mabanglo/EPA

Colin Kaepernick’s invite-only workout is officially two days away, but like anyone paying attention to the strange sequence that put this unprecedented event on our NFL calendar, I’ll believe it when I see it. Or at least when I hear about it, since members of the media did not make the cut.

I just can’t help but wonder what’s behind the NFL’s decision to stage this event, and whether it’s truly designed to bring an end to Kaepernick’s lengthy exile or whether it’s more of a preemptive explanation against future exclusion of the former 49ers quarterback.

That Kaepernick would be an attractive free agent prospect to many teams makes sense, at least from a purely football standpoint. With the ongoing run of backups, journeymen, and unknowns out there playing the position, what logical argument remains that a one-time Super Bowl QB who is only 32 years old doesn’t deserve a look?

Do teams really believe that inexperienced backups such as Brandon Allen (Denver) and Ryan Finley (Cincinnati), flash-in-the-pan newbies such as Luke Falk (Jets), or middling incumbents such as Mitchell Trubisky (Chicago) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Miami) are so much better than Kaepernick that he wasn’t even worth trying out?


Ryan Finley is the starter for the winless Bengals.
Ryan Finley is the starter for the winless Bengals.Gary Landers/AP/FR171284 AP via AP

Which has to make you wonder: Perhaps some of those teams did want to kick the tires on Kaepernick, intrigued by the success of Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. A leading MVP candidate, Jackson has a game so reminiscent of Kaepernick’s — a combination of smart running and strong throwing (with a little more accuracy) — that it is a credit to the offensive coordinator they both share, Greg Roman.

With injuries and poor play depleting the NFL quarterback ranks — 16 of 32 teams have already used a backup this season — general managers and owners should always be on the lookout for alternatives.


Maybe that’s what happened, but said teams didn’t want to deal with the public relations fallout, so they went to the league for help. And even if the league were willing to provide such cover by organizing a tryout open to all 32 teams, it would seem to prove the existence of collusion they for so long insisted wasn’t there. If reports are correct and we are nearing 10 teams that plan to send representatives (including the Patriots), then why didn’t those teams ever invite Kaepernick on their own?

Regardless (remember, Kaepernick and Eric Reid already settled with the league over the collusion issue), we all know Kaepernick’s story has far less to do with football than it does with politics, that one of his personal forms of social activism — kneeling during the national anthem — so inflames some segments of the fan base that teams are unwilling to risk the backlash.

So in steps the league — but with terms. Its terms. The workout would be in Atlanta. It would be on a Saturday. It would include combine-style drills and interviews with team representatives. It would be recorded for all teams to access. There would be no negotiating the date or time. There would be only a few hours difference in notifying teams and in notifying Kaepernick and his representatives of scheduling it. There would be a list provided to Kaepernick of who would attend. No wait, there would be no list.


There would be more cover — if Kaepernick balks, then how badly does he really want to play? If he falters, then how is his fitness for playing? If he declines, for whatever reason, then how could the NFL be at fault? It gave him a shot. That’s what commissioner Roger Goodell could say come Super Bowl time anyway, when he withstands an annual grilling at a state-of-the-league press conference, the awkward dance in which he takes plenty of substantive questions but provides few substantive answers.

And so we ask: Why a Saturday, when the real power brokers of the rosters, GMs and coaches, are busy traveling to or preparing for their Sunday games? That’s what had Reid, the Carolina safety who remains close friends with Kaepernick, telling reporters Wednesday.

“It’s disingenuous,” he said. “They want the appearance of giving Colin a chance, but they give him two hours’ notice and tell him it has to be on a Saturday when they know decision-makers are traveling. So is this real? We’ll see.”

We’ll see. I, for one, hope Kaepernick shows up and is at his best for the workout, whatever that best may be, and that this is indeed a legitimate opportunity for both sides to see each other. As offensive as I might personally feel it is to kneel during the anthem, as much as it is something I would never do myself, I will go to the mat seven days a week and twice on Sunday for the right of someone else to do it. And yes, even on the NFL’s company time, because the NFL has shown me time and time again how many otherwise potentially fireable offenses it is willing to tolerate among its employees (arrests, domestic violence, drug use etc).


As Kaepernick reinforced in a tweet Wednesday, he still wants to play, regardless of an absence that is going on three years now. Read between the lines of his response and you know he was making some larger points: “I’m just getting word from my representatives that the NFL league office reached out to them about a workout in Atlanta on Saturday,” he said. Translation: They told me this at the last minute.

“I’ve been in shape and ready for this for 3 years,” he said. Translation: You’ve been the ones keeping me out.

“Can’t wait to see the head coaches and GMs on Saturday,” he concluded. Translation: I expect that the people who can actually offer me a contract will be the ones in attendance.

And so we ask again, are we really nearing the end of Kaepernick’s lengthy NFL exile? Or is this just an NFL PR stunt to ward off continuing questions about a man whose social activism was so polarizing it scared off any team that might have been interested?

In other words, what is the NFL up to now?

Related: Five things the Patriots need to improve upon in the second half


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.