Just a few short years ago, the NFL was more than willing to go the legal distance with a recognizable quarterback.
New England Patriots star Tom Brady's appeal of a four-game suspension made its way up the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, or one stop shy of the U.S. Supreme Court, for those of you who fell asleep during civics class in high school. Brady was suspended for allegedly deflating footballs, and the league fought him tooth and nail one stop shy of the nation's highest court.
It's telling that the NFL didn't do the same to former 49ers signal-caller Colin Kaepernick and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid.
The former San Francisco teammates were the first two NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, and they settled their collusion grievances with the league Friday. An NFL team has not signed Kaepernick since he opted out of his contract with the 49ers following the 2016 season, and Reid did not sign with the Panthers until October.
NFL officials speculated to Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman that Kaepernick's settlement ranged from $60 million to $80 million. The settlement avoided the hearing the parties were scheduled for later this month.
Considering Brady's legal challenge only ended after he decided not to continue an appeals process nearly 18 months after his initial suspension, that's quite the turnaround.
Although Kaepernick would have had to clear a high legal bar to prove collusion, NFL might have settled in order to save its own skin. In August, a mediator first ruled that Kaepernick had raised enough evidence to move forward in his claim.
The San Francisco Chronicle's Scott Ostler reported Friday that he previously heard from sources some of that evidence was "very embarassing" to the league that would have been made public if the case went to trial, while Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio noted that "the disclosure of a likely treasure trove of" various documents "could have been devastating to the NFL."
We might never know what that evidence could have looked like, or if the NFL truly colluded to keep Kaepernick out of the league. Both sides agreed to confidentiality, after all.
But the existence of that agreement discloses plenty on its own, and begs another question: What does it all mean for Kaepernick's future on the field?
Unlike Brady, Kaepernick still might not play again. He reportedly has continued to work out and prepare should the opportunity arise, but some teams implied or straight-up said it had been too long since he played back in 2017. What will they say now that his suit is settled, two full seasons after he last played?
They'll probably say the same things, paraphrase NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's thoughts and offer up the usual excuses about Kaepernick "not fitting their system." There also is the possibility, as Florio noted, that Kaepernick's settlement "includes a provision that he won’t seek, and won’t be offered, NFL employment."
With the NFL rumor mill ramping up in advance of the start of the league year, we could know whether or not that's the case as soon as next month. Nick Foles, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill and Tyrod Taylor headline a largely uninspiring crop of potential free-agent QBs, and Kaepernick is (at worst) a comparable passer to all four.
Of course, that didn't stop all 32 teams from choosing not to sign him before. With his legal challenge officially settled, what's stopping them now?