Just like NFL’s deal with Jay-Z, the Colin Kaepernick workout looks like a PR trap

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Two years, eight months and eight days into one of the most uncomfortable free agency purgatories in the history of the NFL, this is how the league arranged a surprise “private workout” offer for Colin Kaepernick:

First, a representative from the league called a select group of reporters last week and suggested they should be available on the following Tuesday for a worthwhile news development. The NFL wouldn’t say what it would be. Just that the reporters should be ready to share some breaking news. When the day arrived, the NFL called Kaepernick’s representatives for the first time in more than a year, instructing them that the league was willing to hold a private pro-day style workout for Kaepernick in Atlanta in four days. If he accepted, a memo would be sent to every NFL team inviting them to attend.

The league wouldn’t answer why it was suddenly making the offer. It wouldn’t say who came up with the idea. It wouldn’t say who would attend. And it wouldn’t say why the workout was roughly 96 hours away and on a Saturday when most NFL teams were preparing for a game.

But the NFL would say this: After nearly three years of waiting for this offer, Kaepernick had two hours to accept it.

Via Twitter, Colin Kaepernick said he's ready to work out for NFL teams on Saturday in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

NFL takes aim at Colin Kaepernick issue

This is precisely how to cook up a no-lose scheme to get rid of a pesky player whose exclusion from the NFL continues to be a lingering public relations wound. First, alert some reporters to be ready for news. Then a few days later, spring an absurdly last-minute offer for the player to stage an open workout for an entire league of teams that could have arranged a private workout on their own but never did. And then wait for a response from the player, creating a public relations win regardless the answer.

This is what the NFL did Tuesday. It sprung the plan to clear the Colin Kaepernick problem from the ledger once and for all.

If he said yes to an ambush-style pro day in Atlanta, it would close down his argument that no NFL team has ever worked him out since entering free agency in 2017. If he said no to the offer, the league would have effectively called his Instagram challenges that he was “still ready” for work — henceforth being able to point out that the NFL offered a chance to showcase his skills and Kaepernick passed.

If it looks like a public relations trap and sounds like a public relations trap, it’s probably a public relations trap. It’s precisely why this workout could still fall apart by the time it’s supposed to take place Saturday.

Similarities to NFL’s plans with Jay-Z

Lest anyone forget, there was a very short-lived period when the NFL’s partnership with Jay-Z was celebrated as a huge progressive step that showed how the league was trying to put its best foot forward. Then time passed and everyone got a closer look at the seams of the agreement — which now looks more like a mishmash of entertainment opportunities interspersed with some vague social justice goals – and a whole lot of financial prosperity for the NFL and Jay-Z in between. It looks like a business deal with plenty of public relations upside. What it actually accomplishes for social justice initiatives will be a matter of study 10 years from now. If anyone is even paying attention to it anymore, which might be precisely what the NFL is counting on.

Applied to this Kaepernick situation, the same hallmarks of the Jay-Z deal are apparent. Just like that announcement, two league sources told Yahoo Sports that the NFL hand-selected a few NFL reporters to be ready for the big news. Then it owned the narrative once it sprung the offer on Kaepernick’s camp Tuesday. An offer that came with zero promises of results since NFL teams weren’t even aware that the league was arranging a workout. And again, these are the same teams that failed to schedule their own personal workout for two years and eight months. Suddenly things are supposedly going to start popping for Kaepernick because the NFL has advanced an offer on short notice and with even shorter specifics.

Knowing how the league planned the whole Jay-Z rollout, it’s apparent that the NFL is putting a premium on attacking issues and owning the narratives that it believed led to a litany of public relations problems in 2017. That’s how you got a partnership with the Players Coalition on social justice programs, which the NFL has celebrated while simultaneously reducing the number of players who were taking a knee or speaking out on the racial and social inequalities that plagued their communities. Are some players still taking their stand? Yes. Are they doing it on top of the NFL platform and in full view of the public on Sundays? No. And that has been great for a league that wanted to put any and all strife to bed involving players and fans.

If the league can get some kind of similar results out of this Kaepernick workout — or at least a response to the “nobody has worked him out” criticism — this will be a win regardless of how anyone slices it. At the very least, Kaepernick showing or not showing gives the NFL a new beachhead to establish a defense for why he’s not in the league. All wrapped up in one phrase:

He is the only free agent in NFL history to have the league create a pro day specifically for him, in which every single team was invited to attend.

That’s powerful, especially when the Kaepernick critics are notoriously blind when it comes to important aspects of nuance. Questions like:

Why was this done on a Saturday in November, when the most important decision-makers in a franchise are typically tied up with college scouting or Sunday-facing business? Why not do it on a Tuesday?

Why not give teams more lead time than 96 hours to make arrangements?

Why give reporters advance notice of “news” on this Tuesday without even knowing if Kaepernick would agree to the workout?

The cynical answer to that is simple: Success or failure is irrelevant. All that matters is that Kaepernick answers yes or no, so the NFL has a response to the pressing question of why he isn’t in the league.

Now, if Kaepernick shows up and works out and no team signs him, it’s because he no longer looks like an NFL quarterback — not because teams refuse to consider him as an option. And if Kaepernick doesn’t show? Well, then he’s not in the league because he chose to pass on the biggest opportunity offered to him.

Win-win scenario for NFL, even if Kaepernick backs out

For the league, that’s the chess move here. It has put Kaepernick into a corner and the only escape is giving the NFL some kind of response that allows a future defense for Kaepernick’s ouster.

We’ll see if this whole affair even happens. There’s still a chance that when and if NFL teams choose to send someone to the workout, it’s just a smattering of low-level evaluators or employees who are just there to be accounted for in the annals of Kaepernick history. Should that happen — creating a crowd of eyeballs with little to no authority — there’s always the chance that Kaepernick refuses to take part.

There’s a chance that this is a sham and Kaepernick’s camp calls it precisely that.

But even in that scenario, the NFL walks out with a win. Because even a half-hearted effort will surely be celebrated as a grand gesture by those who are happy to see Kaepernick out of the league. And as time goes on and nuance fades, the league office will be able to say the one thing that it hasn’t been able to say for nearly three years.

“We tried.”

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