Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who last season started a wave of sideline protests by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, has filed a grievance against the N.F.L., accusing all 32 teams of colluding to keep him out of the league.
The move threatens to escalate a billowing dispute that has galvanized many players who believe the owners are penalizing Kaepernick, who began kneeling to raise awareness of social injustice, including police brutality against black Americans.
The anthem demonstrations have drawn repeated condemnation from President Trump, led team owners to consider measures to restrict them, and fueled a national conversation on the propriety of protesting during the song. The protests have spread beyond the N.F.L., to draw in high school players, college cheerleaders and, this weekend, a German soccer team.
Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March and has not found a team willing to sign him. His grievance will be heard by an arbitrator under the terms of the labor agreement between the union and the league. Kaepernick’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, said in a statement that Kaepernick had exhausted “every possible avenue with all N.F.L. teams and their executives.”
— Mark Geragos (@markgeragos) October 16, 2017
The league declined to comment on Kaepernick’s claim.
Kaepernick’s inability to find a team, and the broader debate over the anthem protests, will now become a legal tug of war that could potentially amplify the dispute for months.
Though not on the field, Kaepernick remains a potent symbol. On Sunday, dozens of black men took a knee outside the N.F.L. stadium in Baltimore before the Ravens played the Chicago Bears.
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Bleacher Report first reported that Kaepernick would sue the league.
Kaepernick has talked with several teams, with the most recent known discussions occurring with the Tennessee Titans. He also worked out with the Seattle Seahawks during the preseason. Yet every team that has looked at Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season, has declined to sign him.
With the season six weeks old, Kaepernick remains a free agent despite having had one of his best statistical seasons last year. And nearly two dozen other quarterbacks have been signed, many of them with lesser résumés.
Kaepernick, 29, opted out of his contract after last season because he expected the 49ers to let him go. He threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions in 12 games last year.
His statistics aside, proving collusion is difficult, legal experts said, because evidence of discussions between teams, a conspiracy essentially to keep Kaepernick out, might be hard to come by.
According to the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the league, the burden is on Kaepernick to prove the teams actively conspired against him, and did not merely decline to sign him.
“An inference that he was not signed — even arguable if ‘worse’ players were — is not going to be enough,” Mark Conrad, an associate professor of law and ethics at Fordham University, wrote in an email. “Many remember the baseball collusion cases of the 1980s, but in those cases, there was some clear evidence of attempts to limit signings of free agents. Here, Kaepernick’s attorneys will have to show that kind of evidence — conversations, emails, notes.”
In a statement, the N.F.L. Players Association said it would assist Kaepernick. The union said it would speak to Kaepernick’s advisers this week.
“The N.F.L.P.A. has been in regular contact with Mr. Kaepernick’s representatives for the past year about his options and our union agreed to follow the direction of his advisers throughout that time,” the statement said.
Geragos has represented an array of well-known clients, including Bill Clinton’s brother, Roger Clinton, Michael Jackson and other pop artists, and Greg Anderson, the personal trainer for Barry Bonds.
The owners will meet this week in New York to discuss how to proceed on managing the anthem demonstrations. Until now, the N.F.L. has chosen not to penalize players who do not stand for the anthem, which is a violation of the league rules. (Courtesy of NYT / Ken Belson)