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Colin Kaepernick Is Getting An NFL Workout. Skeptics Question League's Timing

After nearly three years away from the game, Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who became a lightning rod for taking a knee to protest social injustice during the national anthem, is one step closer to being back in the NFL.

Kapernick, a once-electrifying player who has a Super Bowl appearance on his resume, got notice from the NFL on Tuesday that a private workout has been arranged for him on Saturday in Atlanta.

All 32 NFL teams — those same teams that have refused to sign him following the anthem controversy — will be invited to the Atlanta Falcons facility in Flowery Branch, Ga.

The former Pro Bowl quarterback, who played with the San Francisco 49ers, last suited up for an NFL game during the 2016 season. Kaepernick appears to have been caught off guard by the league's sudden interest, tweeting Tuesday evening:

"I'm just getting word from my representatives that the NFL league office reached out to them about a workout in Atlanta on Saturday. I've been in shape and ready for this for 3 years, can't wait to see the head coaches and GMs on Saturday."

The scheduled workout presents a long-awaited opportunity for Kaepernick to quiet doubters and show he can still play at an NFL level.

It also offers a chance to move past allegations he's levied against the league that all 32 teams colluded to bar him from playing. Kaepernick and the league settled a grievance in February. A similar settlement was reached with Eric Reid, who knelt with Kaepernick during the Star Spangled Banner. Reid wasn't immediately picked up when his contract expired but now plays safety for the Carolina Panthers.

From left: Eli Harold (No. 58), Colin Kaepernick (No. 7) and Eric Reid (No. 35) kneel during the national anthem before their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 2, 2016.
San Jose Mercury News / Tribune News Service via Getty I
Tribune News Service via Getty I
From left: Eli Harold (No. 58), Colin Kaepernick (No. 7) and Eric Reid (No. 35) kneel during the national anthem before their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 2, 2016.

Then and now, Kaepernick maintains that the demonstration that began during a preseason game in 2016 was meant to call attention to police shootings of unarmed black people and inequality in the criminal justice system.

Critics, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, derided the displays of kneeling as disrespectful to U.S. troops and the American flag.

Before the start of the 2016 NFL season,Trump blasted Kaepernick and the protests, suggesting "maybe he should find a country that works better for him." In 2017, the first season Kaepernick went unsigned, now-President Trump suggested that the NFL "fire or suspend" any player who didn't stand for the national anthem.

The news of Saturday's workout was first reported by ESPN, which adds that "several clubs" have put out feelers about Kaepernick's "football readiness." The sports network also notes that Kaepernick's representatives initially "began to question the legitimacy" of the invitation.

"Because of the shroud of mystery around the workout and because none of the 32 NFL teams had been informed prior to Tuesday, Kaepernick's representatives began to question the legitimacy of the workout and process and whether it was just a PR stunt by the league," ESPN writes.

ESPN's Adam Schefter who broke the story, tweeted that Kaepernick's representatives asked about changing the timing of the workout but that the league would not budge.

"Kaepernick's reps asked for workout to be on a Tuesday, the day of most workouts, but NFL said it had to be this Saturday. He asked for a later Saturday; NFL said no," Schefter said.

Tyler Tynes, a staff writer at the sports and culture website The Ringer, points out that Saturdays are complicated for league staff because that's when NFL scouts fan out across the country to evaluate top college prospects and because it's too close to Sunday NFL games.

"Kap's representatives were told that the NFL needed an answer 'in two hours' if Kaepernick planned to go through with the workout," Tynes tweeted. "A lot of people had to rearrange their schedules. They thought it conflicted with college football scouting schedules and NFL Sunday game day prep."

NPR reached out to the NFL Players Association for comment on the timing of Kaepernick's workout, and was directed to a five-word tweet by Executive Director DeMaurice Smith.

"Long overdue; well deserved chance."

On social media, some people wondered whether the whole exercise is a public relations stunt.

Malik Spann of Blitz Magazine tweeted: "NFL is literally treating Kaepernick like an ex-offender trying to make him do the most obscure things for re-entry...it's so disingenuous & fraudulent, it's an humiliating PR process or stunt that no capable play has ever had to deal with to get back on the field."

And Jemele Hill, a staff writer at The Atlantic, said the move by the NFL feels "disingenuous."

"I know Colin wants to play, but this feels so disingenuous on the NFL's part," she tweeted. "I've said this since the first time Donald Trump called him out at a rally: Colin Kaepernick will never play in the NFL again. I hope I'm very wrong about this, but NFL owners are cowardly."

Others lamented that it "will be a distraction" for any team that signs him.

"Why is it not OK for an NFL team to simply say "we aren't interested in Colin Kaepernick because we feel like he will be a distraction to what we are trying to accomplish" Why is that not OK?" tweeted Colin Dunlap, host of The Fan radio show in Pittsburgh.

According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the workout is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Saturday and will play out similar to the NFL combine, where college players perform physical and mental tests for teams ahead of the NFL draft.

USA Today columnistJarrett Bell writes that any team that wanted to do its due diligence on Kaepernick "could have brought him in way before now" but adds that "hopefully" the weekend workout is a signal teams are moving beyond "kneeling as a reason for shutting Kaepernick out of the league."

Bell adds:

"This is an unprecedented move for the NFL to set up a showcase for one player.

"Kaepernick, though, is not just one player. He's the one who still has some major credibility in the African-American community for sacrificing his career for a noble cause – detesting police killings of unarmed African-Americans and other social injustices."

As part of its 30th anniversary celebrations of the wildly successful "Just Do It" slogan, Nike made the exiled athlete a centerpiece of its 30th anniversary ad push. One ad showed a black and white image of his face with the words: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

Nike has been working to develop an apparel line for the athlete-turned-social activist and has donated to his "Know Your Rights" campaign, which was created to advance the well-being of black and brown communities.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.