The NFL’s recent settlement with Colin Kaepernick offers a lesson to business in how to manage, or actually not manage, employee activism.
Colin Kaepernick, the former starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, recently settled his collusion lawsuit with the NFL. The settlement, as speculated from a number of reports, is in the $60 to $80 million range. Kaepernick filed a collusion grievance in October 2017, alleging that the NFL and its owners were blackballing the former Super Bowl runner-up because of his controversial kneeling protest spotlighting racial injustice in America.
The protest instantly drew national attention and instigated strong political opinions. Conservatives denounced the kneeling as anti-American (and somehow anti-military). Liberals, meanwhile, generally supported Kaepernick’s protest - if not supporting his cause – by reiterating his right to protest as guaranteed in the Constitution. The publicity surrounding the protest reached its peak when President Donald Trump further politicized the issue, calling on NFL owners to tell their insubordinate kneeling players to “get that [S.O.B.] off the field right now!”
Trump’s influence in Kaepernick’s demise extended beyond what he said publicly. Private conversations with influential owners like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft reveal that he requested the owners support him on the stance because “this is a very winning, strong issue for me . . . this one lifts me.”
The lawsuit against the NFL promised to be a long, tired battle as Kaepernick and his former teammate and kneeling partner Eric Reid built their case against NFL owners. Instead, Kaepernick, Reid and the NFL came to a settlement as described in a three sentence, matter-of-fact statement posted on Twitter by their attorney, Mark Geragos.
Already, there are vast numbers of supporters and detractors on each side of the “should Kaepernick have settled?” debate. And it’s easy to see why. Many Americans felt deeply involved and emotional about this lawsuit. Representing the nexus of race, politics and sports, followers expected finality, not a settlement with non-disclosure agreements. But as is the case within any industry, the answers are never simple, especially in this current “brands taking stands” era.
Let’s assess both sides of the debate.
It’s noteworthy to mention that this isn’t the first time the NFL has coughed up a large amount of money, but the NFL is notoriously tough to tackle in the court of law. Even Tom Brady, one of the most respected and acclaimed players in NFL history, succumbed to the league when a federal court upheld the NFL’s four game suspension of Brady for his involvement in “Deflategate.”
If what has been speculated is even close to accurate, the $60 to $80 million would easily make Kaepernick the highest paid player in the NFL over the two-year span of his absence. He is also immediately available to be resigned with a team, and Geragos has surmised that teams will start knocking soon.
Jemele Hill, a staff writer for The Atlantic and former ESPN anchor, wrote:
“Technically, Colin Kaepernick withdrew his collusion case. Technically, the NFL did not admit that it conspired to blackball Kaepernick from the league after he began taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. But nontechnically speaking, the NFL lost. Massively.”
The terms of the settlement, announced on February 22, were not disclosed. But it doesn’t matter how much money Kaepernick ultimately receives from the NFL; what matters is that he bested a league that has a long history of pummeling any opposition, especially players, in court.
Kaepernick’s settlement helps put more power in the players’ hands. And in a league where the 32 league owners call the shots with very little pushback, even the smallest tip of the scale toward players gives them an opportunity to leverage more power and control. Kaepernick caught the league’s attention and it cost the them a lot of time, energy and money to put out the fire.
If there is a lesson that business can learn from sports, this saga will long endure as a case study of how to deal effectively with employee activism. We now have another example of why it is better for a company to work with its employees on taking a stand on social issues, rather than dragging out such a controversy that ends up involving a litany of attorneys and consultants - and the viral kangaroo court known as social media.
After all, the fire may have been harder to contain than the NFL cares to admit. Kaepernick sparked a movement - league owners pledged $90 million to social justice reforms in 2016, Papa Johns’ founder was forced out as CEO following his racist anti-NFL comments, and this year, rappers and performers stood in solidarity as they rejected invitations to perform at the annual Super Bowl halftime show.
Though the case was settled before the NFL was fully exposed for its role in Kaepernick’s unemployment, it is now clear the league suffered an irreversible public relations and financial nightmare.
There is little closure here. Sure, Kaepernick walks away with a lot of money in his pocket but his protest was about so much more. It was about racial injustice, police brutality - particularly against young black males and standing up (or kneeling) for something bigger than football - and bigger than a paycheck. Kaepernick said so himself:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said in 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Yet, even after this settlement, not much has changed. In fact, he could be throwing away his right to speak out against many issues as part of the agreement reached in the settlement.
If the NFL were willing to settle, they must have been afraid of dragging out the case and seeing what could have been revealed, right? The owners, who wield the balance of power in the NFL, were complicit in blackballing Kaepernick and critics say the league should not be let off the hook by a settlement. Beside, $60 to $80 million isn’t even a drop in the ocean for the NFL - collectively, the 32 NFL franchises are worth nearly $75 billion. Had the 16-month case continued to the end, it’s possible that the NFL’s power structure could have been severely damaged.
The bottom line for football, and business
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that by 2027 he wants the NFL to be netting $25 billion annually in profits. An organization of that size, power and influence could not quietly make a collusion settlement disappear. Though the disclosed settlement is reportedly around $60 to $80 million, the NFL wanted to avoid having a price tag imposed on the grueling evidence-gathering and public relations hit associated with the 16-month case. It’s over now, but players are more emboldened to speak out against the NFL now than ever before: just as more employees of corporations feel empowered to speak their truth to power over policies with which they disagree.
Kaepernick didn’t wave the white flag - the NFL did.
And C-suites no longer can steer where companies navigate as they take on social and political issues; we will see employees increasingly in that driver's seat.
Image credit: U.S. Airforce/2nd Lt. Keenan Kunst
Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.