LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned, and there's been a lot of debate about why.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #1: If it hadn't been for the kneeling during the national anthem, chances are, he would have gotten a call by now.
UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #2: This is not a race thing. It's not a distraction thing. It's a law of diminishing returns thing.
UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #3: If he's not on a team by training camp, then I would say it's probably because of his activism.
UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR #4: Teams are questioning his skill set. And unfortunately for Colin Kaepernick, I'm not sure that his skill set was that good.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this week's Out of Bounds, we look at Kaepernick's history of protest and the division over why he isn't playing. Here to discuss the controversy is Dave Zirin, sports editor for the magazine The Nation.
DAVE ZIRIN: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Remind us of Colin Kaepernick's political stance and the controversy surrounding it.
ZIRIN: Colin Kaepernick, when he was a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers at the start of the 2016 season, made the decision that he was not going to stand for the national anthem before games as a protest against the killings of unarmed black people, men and women, by police. Now, it started with him just sitting out. But then, once it was noticed and seen and publicized, that's when he started doing the famous and now iconic posture of taking a knee, which he did for all 16 weeks during the NFL season.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, so that sparked deep divisions in the NFL - in the country, frankly. Your contention is that that is the reason why he is not working now.
ZIRIN: It's my contention. It's the contention of a lot of people around Colin Kaepernick. And it's the contention of a great many people in the news media and in the football world who are really flummoxed why he has not been signed, given the fact that a ton of quarterbacks with resumes far less impressive than Colin Kaepernick have been signed. When you couple that with some statements by owners, both on and off the record, it looks more and more that what we're looking at is an old-fashioned political blackballing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, lots of commentators, though, have said he's unsigned because he's just not NFL-starter good.
ZIRIN: His career was on a downswing before 2016. But then, this past season, he threw for 16 touchdowns, four interceptions on a terrible San Francisco 49ers team and led all NFL players in yards per carry and had the second-most rushing yards of any NFL quarterback. And when you look at some of the other quarterbacks who have been signed this offseason as backups, it's really stunning.
And so that's why you've heard a litany of other kinds of excuses about why Colin Kaepernick has not been signed. And I've heard everything from the fact that teams are concerned that he's a vegetarian to the fact that he only will take starters money and will only go to a team that he has the chance to start for. The problem with that, though, is that when you speak to Colin Kaepernick, as I have, none of what they are saying is true.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right - well, so tell me what Colin Kaepernick told you.
ZIRIN: What Colin Kaepernick is saying and what the people very close to him are saying is that all he wants is an invitation to a training camp, which he has not gotten, which actually goes against - some other anonymous reports came out that are unconfirmed - that he was invited to several training camps and just did not go because he did not think he could start. I can confirm that that's actually not true.
Now, the question that remains is whether or not what we're looking at is the sort of thing that NFL teams, NFL owners - they tend to be a very conservative lot. They're just sort of deciding individually, with a degree of groupthink, that they won't sign him or, as one former NFL player said, that he had information that the NFL had contacted teams and told them not to sign Kaepernick, particularly the Seattle Seahawks. And if that's the case, what we're talking about is collusion. And that is much more serious, particularly in the world of sports, which is a closed market. There are tons of antitrust exemptions that are given to professional sports leagues by the government. So as we've seen in the past, if a league is found guilty of collusion, we're talking about nine-figure settlements. So - the stakes are actually very high right now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this all, though, being viewed through a political lens? I mean, you worked for a liberal publication. Is this your political lens informing this? Or are there, you know, facts to your conclusion?
ZIRIN: The politics of Colin Kaepernick are certainly politics that I'm sympathetic to. But, you know, there's that old expression about you're entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts - the facts of his statistics in 2016, the facts of independent assessments from scouts whom I've spoken to. And every player I've spoken with who has been in a locker room with Colin Kaepernick, even ones who don't share his politics, say he's terrific in the locker room. So even though my politics may lean in the Kaepernick direction, I have to say that the facts really do speak for themselves.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dave Zirin, sports editor for the magazine The Nation, thank you so much.
ZIRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.