Before Michael Bennett said a word to reporters at Seahawks headquarters Wednesday, he swatted a Gatorade bottle off the interview room podium.
For nearly 40 years, the sports drink company has been a prominent sponsor of the NFL, what the league might refer to as a “corporate partner.” Bennett is in no mood these days to think of corporations as partners, especially when the corporation is the NFL.
Bennett cut to the chase Wednesday: He believes former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to be a victim of collusion, blacklisted from the NFL by owners who won’t forgive him for the role he played as the league’s original national anthem protester in 2016.
In a recent letter commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to team executives, Goodell declared the time has come “to move past the controversy,” adding that it is “threatening to erode the unifying power of our game and is now dividing us and our players from many fans across the country.”
Move past the controversy? As long as Kaepernick isn’t wearing a football uniform, Bennett isn’t standing for the Star Spangled Banner.
“The first thing in being able to even have a conversation is to make sure Colin Kaepernick gets an opportunity to play in the NFL,” said Bennett. “Before we negotiate whether we sit or not, there should be a negotiation about Colin Kaepernick and giving him an opportunity again.”
Kaepernick has been idle since he opted out of his contract with the 49ers seven months ago. He met with the Seahawks in May, and though Pete Carroll described the free agent’s visit the way the coach describes all free-agent visits – “he’s a fine young man with tremendous talent” is a typical characterization – the Hawks identified veteran journeyman Austin Davis as Russell Wilson’s backup.
The Seahawks’ brief flirtation with Kaepernick reflected the state of his career at age 29. By all accounts he impressed Carroll, who presumably was looking for a backup with dual-threat skills similar to Wilson’s.
But the Hawks went another direction, as have 31 other teams, leading Bennett to wonder: “Why doesn’t he have a job?”
It’s a legitimate question. Kaepernick threw for 72 touchdowns against 30 interceptions during six seasons with the 49ers. He’s healthy, without off-field issues, and his 2016 passer rating slightly exceeded that of his career.
The notion there are 32 NFL quarterbacks more fit to start than Kaepernick is arguable. The notion there are 32 NFL quarterbacks more fit as backups is laughable.
“All of us have had an opportunity to speak to our employers,” said Bennett. “To think that the guy who started everything doesn’t have a voice at this moment doesn’t seem very right to me.”
The commissioner wants this maelstrom to just kind of fade away, as Tom Brady’s inflated-football case eventually did. In lieu of that, Goodell is trusting – well, hoping – compromise can be achieved.
But as long as Kaepernick remains outside the lines, compromise will be elusive. He refused to stand for the anthem as a protest in the wake of several tragic encounters between black American teens and the police, but the narrative now seems more steeped in an old-fashioned labor dispute – employers vs. employees – than affecting social change.
Bennett was asked if focusing so much on Kaepernick’s job status risks pushing the former quarterback’s mission statement off the rails.
“It doesn’t derail the message,” Bennett said. “It’s part of the message. He started the message. For us to forget who started it, we’re not following our brotherhood.”
To be continued, on a sideline near you...