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What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell explains why Colin Kaepernick deserves a chance to play in the NFL again.

USA TODAY

It could not have been too difficult for Roger Goodell to declare this week that he is down to “encourage” any NFL team thinking of signing blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Goodell expressed as much during an ESPN special featuring the commissioners of the several major sports leagues, maintaining a consistent pattern.

Less than two weeks ago, when the NFL Commissioner responded to a video from players in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy, he didn’t even bother to mention Kaepernick by name as he apologized to players – so weird, seeing that Kaepernick used the NFL stage in 2016 to launch a protest movement that raised awareness about the type of police brutality and racism is reflected with Floyd’s death.

Now, with the Kaepernick-still-should-be-playing-in-the-NFL theme revived against the backdrop of massive protests across the country, Goodell is suddenly lobbying for the activist to receive work.

It’s like jumping on the bandwagon. Within the past week or so, voices within the NFL community in support of Kaepernick getting an opportunity – including some that have expressed as much all along – have gotten louder.   

OPINION: To make true progress, NFL needs to right its past wrongs against Colin Kaepernick

MORE: NFL QBs drastically shift tone on racial justice after George Floyd’s death

Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said it well. He told “CBS This Morning” that the NFL still hasn’t gotten it right with Kaepernick and that the league will be “on the wrong side of history” until the quarterback is signed or given an apology.

If there were a petition based on such public declarations, signers joining Jenkins would at least include Richard Sherman, Carlos Hyde, Michael Bennett, Eric Kendricks, Pete Carroll and Drew Rosenhaus, all of whom have expressed support within recent days for Kaepernick. And, of course, their sentiments were co-signed by Rev. Al Sharpton last week as he gave the eulogy at Floyd’s funeral.

Maybe there’s hope. Carroll, the Seahawks coach, said he received a call from an unidentified team inquiring about Kaepernick. The Seahawks, in 2017, were the only team in the past three years to bring in Kaepernick for a visit. But now there might be a mysterious team – and there are several who could use Kaepernick at least as a competitive option as a backup – in the mix.

This would be the time to make a move, a few weeks before training camps could open, pending a coronavirus X-factor. Having a few weeks to absorb the offense – rather than coming in as an emergency option during the season after a quarterback injury – is critical to Kaepernick’s chances for success.

So, yes, it’s a convenient time for Goodell to “encourage” that some team sign the quarterback who in 2019 settled a collusion case against the NFL. Goodell added that he’s open to Kaepernick working with the league on social justice issues, too. He might have also added, having professed recently that “Black lives matter,” that what’s happened to Kaepernick in losing his NFL opportunity is symbol of how careers and even lives have historically been sacrificed by those demonstrating courage for the cause of equality.

Yet in addressing Kaepernick with ESPN, Goodell unfortunately prefaced his headline-grabbing remark with the “if he wants to play” qualifier. Intended or not, that “if” advances one of the sorry narratives that has surrounded Kaepernick since his last NFL action. Goodell should have known better than to let that “if” stuff spill off his tongue after all that Kaepernick and the league have been through.

Just for the record, again, here’s what Kaepernick, 32, said in February when I asked whether he wants to play:

“My desire to play football is still there,” Kaepernick told USA TODAY Sports. “I still train five days a week. I’m ready to go, I’m ready for a phone call, tryout, workout at any point in time. I’m still waiting on the owners and their partners to stop running from this situation. So, I hope I get a call this offseason. I’ll be looking forward to it.”

That’s pretty much been Kaepernick’s stock answer throughout his NFL exile.

And Goodell’s stock statements? Stuff like the NFL is a “meritocracy.” Or teams are making “football decisions” – even while some carry sorry QB options and Kaepernick’s résumé includes taking a team to a Super Bowl. Goodell, in recent years, has also harrumphed that “I don’t get involved in personnel decisions with the clubs,” although NFL executive Joe Lockhart contended recently that Goodell indeed made calls on behalf of Kaepernick at some point. Goodell, the face of the NFL shield, has also posited that multiple factors are involved for teams. It should not be forgotten that Giants co-owner John Mara once publicly bemoaned the potential backlash he suspected would come with signing Kaepernick, based on feedback he’s received in letters from fans.

For Goodell to take the public stand now to “encourage” a team to sign Kaepernick seems so reactionary. In times of crisis, the NFL often seems to stick a finger in the air to assess where the wind is coming from. When President Donald Trump blasted the NFL over the protests during the national anthem, feeding red meat to his base, the league at first showed some resistance … then backed down. Now that Trump’s approval ratings are sinking, there’s seemingly more juice for the NFL to resist the Basher-In-Chief. Encouraging the possibility of Kaepernick getting another shot, like maintaining you’re game for joining protests now, seemingly flows better these days, especially as many corporate entities – always important to the business of the NFL, given sponsorship dollars – make public pronouncements that admonish systemic racism.

The tide is seemingly shifting, leaving Goodell with so much less risk in supporting Kaepernick’s chances to land work. Remember, the Goodell who recently expressed regret for not listening to players is the same man who in 2017 trumpeted “unprecedented dialogue” with players as the league became proactive in supporting social justice efforts.

Bottom line, the words – even if genuine in this case – are so cheap when played against the history of the Kaepernick saga.

Back in 2017, I asked Goodell at a news conference if he had even talked to Kaepernick. I was stunned that he maintained, “It’s something I could do, but it’s not something I have thought about.”

That shouldn’t have been difficult back then and surely shouldn’t be now during the enhanced listening that will be presumably in play with this new round of enlightenment.

Go ahead, Roger. Call him. Initiate engagement and listen up.

As with the statement of “encouragement,” better late than never.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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