Among Colin Kaepernick’s targets in grievance vs. NFL: President Donald Trump

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

A digital needle in a haystack of communication is what Colin Kaepernick will be looking for when – or if – the former quarterback’s legal team gets the discovery it has requested in a grievance filed against the NFL. And as that potential discovery comes into focus, the legal shovels will seek to dig into a high-profile roster of targets.

Among them: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. President Donald Trump. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens.

That list would just be the start, according to those familiar with the discovery plan.

“It will be a vast group, both broad and specific,” one source told Yahoo Sports of planned targets for discovery.

Robert Kraft listens as President Donald Trump welcomes the Patriots to the White House in April. (Getty)

Ultimately, Kaepernick’s legal team will seek to digitally pick through the inner-workings of why some teams entertained and then passed on the quarterback after he entered free agency in March. Specifically, what was the dialogue taking place between ownership, executives and the coaching staff? Did any communication take place between the franchises considering Kaepernick and the league office? Did any communication occur between owners at a time that it became public that teams like Seattle and Baltimore were considering him as an option?

In the broader picture, Kaepernick’s legal team will seek any communications owners began having about him starting in September 2016, when his protests began drawing widespread attention and condemnation. Of particular interest will be the periods of time surrounding league meetings or owner-related gatherings, the months since Kaepernick hit free agency, or other high-profile moments, such as when Kaepernick landed on the cover of Time magazine in October 2016.

Here’s what is clear from Kaepernick’s grievance – and also from speaking to members of his legal team – Trump’s involvement with owners and some of his public statements could become a useful tool in arguments.

 One pivotal moment that will draw interest in discovery occurred long before Trump’s railing on anthem protests during this season. Instead, it was March 20, when the president engaged in some apparently unscripted bragging to a crowd in Louisville, Kentucky, about his influence in keeping NFL teams from signing Kaepernick.

 “It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump,” the president said. “Do you believe that? I just saw that. I just saw that.”

Of particular interest about that moment is that it came one day after Kraft had joined Trump on Air Force One for a flight between West Palm Beach, Florida, and Washington. Kaepernick’s camp hopes to prove that Trump has been one of the pivotal unifying forces of collusion in the NFL, either through his relationship with Kraft and Jones, or through his influence using his public platform.

The most significant goal of forensically combing through the NFL’s private communications would be to find “cross-boundary” communications about the quarterback, according to sources close to Kaepernick. More specifically …

• Owners or executives from at least two different teams communicating about Kaepernick’s protests; his impact on the league’s brand; his free agency; or anything else relating to his previous or future job status in the league.

• Owners or executives from at least one team and the NFL’s league office communicating about Kaepernick’s protests; his impact on the league’s brand; his free agency; or anything else relating to his previous or future job status in the league.

• Owners or the NFL’s league office communicating with President Trump – or even indicating communications with Trump – about anything relating to Kaepernick’s job status.

Colin Kaepernick is accusing the NFL and its team owners of blackballing him from the league due to his 2016 protests. (AP)

There will be significant hurdles involving any such communications (if they indeed exist). Kaepernick’s legal team will have to convince an arbitrator that the grievance is valid and such a significant request for discovery is valid in the first place. As it stands, Kaepernick’s attorneys have already sent notice to the NFL and all 32 teams to preserve all communications for potential use in future discovery. Proof of the NFL or teams destroying any forensic evidence after receiving such a notification could be grounds for a grievance defeat for the league.

Even with the preservation of potential information, discovery actually coming to fruition is hardly a guarantee. The neutral system arbitrator, expected to be University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen Burbank, will hear arguments from Kaepernick’s legal team and rule on whether the evidence is strong enough to compel the league to turn over communications. If Burbank rules against Kaepernick’s efforts for discovery, the grievance would essentially be crushed on the spot, leaving Kaepernick to file a federal lawsuit alleging collective-bargaining agreement violations. Some in the NFL already believe this is the real intent of the grievance and monster discovery request in the first place – to ask for so much that the grievance is shot down and ultimately forced into a courtroom.

If the system arbitrator allows Kaepernick such a wide net for discovery, his legal team will still have a second significant challenge of proving that different teams or elements of the NFL’s executive office worked together to either limit or eliminate Kaepernick’s employment opportunities.

Legally, proving Trump was the unifying agent of collusion could be a stretch. But all it may take is one pivotal needle lying in a massive communication haystack. And that’s what Kaepernick’s legal team will be fighting to find.

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