Lightning rod quarterback Colin Kaepernick has filed a grievance against NFL owners he says have conspired to keep him out of football over his controversial national anthem protest.
Despite six weeks of the season in the books, and a string of vacancies across the league, Kaepernick – whose kneeling national anthem protest drew the attention of even President Trump – has remained unsigned by any of the league’s 32 teams since he cut ties with the San Francisco 49ers last year.
RELATED: Colin Kaepernick throughout his career
Colin Kaepernick through his career
Colin Kaepernick through his career
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 02: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #10 of the Nevada Reno Wolf Pack celebrates with fans after defeating the UNLV Rebels 44-26 at Sam Boyd Stadium October 2, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
30 December 2008: Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick (10) in the Roady's Humanitarian Bowl held at Bronco Stadium in Boise, ID. (Photo by Steve Conner/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - CIRCA 2011: In this handout image provided by the NFL, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers poses for his NFL headshot circa 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by NFL via Getty Images)
MOBILE, AL - JANUARY 29: Colin Kaepernick #10 #10 of the North Team scrambles out of the pocket while taking on the South Team during the fourth quarter of the Under Armour Senior Bowl on January 29, 2011 at Ladd-Pebbles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for Under Armour)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 12: Colin Kaepernick # 7 of the San Francisco 49ers defends as his team plays the New Orleans Saints during their pre season game at Louisiana Superdome on August 12, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 1: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers throws the ball from the pocket against the San Diego Chargers during their preseason NFL Game on September 1, 2011 at Qualcomm Stadium in San DIego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 18: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers throws before a game against the Seattle Seahawks on October 18, 2012 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 13-6. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 09: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs down the field in between plays during their game against the Miami Dolphins at Candlestick Park on December 9, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 12: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates after running in a touchdown in the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Candlestick Park on January 12, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers hugs a teammate as they celebrate in the locker room after the 49ers defeat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 in the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome on January 20, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers answers questions on his tattoos during Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday, January 29, 2013, in New Orleans, Louisiana.. (George Bridges/MCT via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 03: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up against the Baltimore Ravens during Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 09: Professional football player/presenter Colin Kaepernick attends the Third Annual Hall of Game Awards hosted by Cartoon Network at Barker Hangar on February 9, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. 23270_002_SK_0224.JPG (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/WireImage)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 08: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs onto the field for their preseason NFL game against the Denver Broncos at Candlestick Park on August 8, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 25: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers scrambles away from the rush of Fred Evans #90 of the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter at Candlestick Park on August 25, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 26: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up before a game against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on September 26, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 20: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs the ball in the first half against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on October 20, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 20: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts during a NFL game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on October 20, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/ Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 19: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers walks off the field after losing to the Seattle Seahawks 23-17 during the 2014 NFC Championship at CenturyLink Field on January 19, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 02: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on from the sidelines against the St. Louis Rams during the third quarter at Levi's Stadium on November 2, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - AUGUST 29: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up prior to facing the Denver Broncos during preseason action at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on August 29, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
20 September 2015: San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7)  in action during a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 18: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up prior to playing the Baltimore Ravens in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 27: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers fires the team up on the field prior to the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on November 27, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Dolphins defeated the 49ers 31-24. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 24: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers warms up before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 1: Eric Reid #35, Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eli Harold #58 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline, during the anthem, prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Levi Stadium on January 1, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. The Seahawks defeated the 49ers 25-23. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
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Kaepernick, 29, insists he has been sidelined by corporate collusion, and has filed an official complaint under the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players.
The grievance, which also names NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, appeared to have been filed before yet another roster spot opened up Sunday with the season-ending injury of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who suffered a broken collar bone.
It was unclear if there were any talks between Kaepernick and the Packers.
“Mr. Kaepernick became a free agent on or around March 3, 2017,” the complaint says. “Based on his consistently exceptional career performance, his age, and all other objective metrics, Mr. Kaepernick was an ideal candidate – and, in fact, the best-qualified candidate – to fill the vacant starting quarterback positions on many NFL teams, or at the very least, the numerous vacant backup positions. Goodell himself has been quoted as stating that the NFL is about meritocracy and opportunity.
“However, during his free agency period, the purportedly ‘free market’ – whose natural function should have resulted in a bidding war (or at least high-level interest) for a quarterback of Mr. Kaepernick’s caliber – instead functioned as a peculiar institution with suspicious design and objective.”
The New York Jets and the New York Giants are named in the complaint.
Kaepernick has hired famed criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos to represent him.
Geragos has represented other celebrities and high-profile clients, such as Michael Jackson, Gary Condit, former first brother Roger Clinton, Winona Ryder, Nicole Ritchie and Chris Brown.
Geragos later confirmed the validity of the grievance in a statement provided to Pro Football Talk.
“If the NFL (as well as all professional sports leagues) is to remain a meritocracy, then principled and peaceful political protest – which the owners themselves made great theater imitating weeks ago – should not be punished and athletes should not be denied employment based on partisan political provocation by the Executive Branch of our government," Geragos says in a statement, per Pro Football Talk. "Such a precedent threatens all patriotic Americans and harkens back to our darkest days as a nation. Protecting all athletes from such collusive conduct is what compelled Mr. Kaepernick to file his grievance.”
Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem last year to protest against police brutality and racial injustice, a gesture that spread to other players on other teams.
But Kaepernick’s defiance drew the wrath of many fans, including Trump, who said the protest disrespects the flag and armed service members.
Trump even encouraged owners to fire players who participate in the protests. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said his team would bench players who don’t stand for the national anthem.
In proving that teams staged a group boycott against him, Kaepernick faces a tougher challenge than the Denver Broncos defense.
Kaepernick would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that more than one team owner or executive actually had a discussion and plotted to keep him out of football.
Collusion also doesn't require all 32 teams to be working together. As few as two individuals can collude against a player to trigger a legitimate antitrust infraction, according to legal experts.
If Kaepernick can prove so much as an email exchange or a text message or a phone call took place between just two people agreeing not to sign him, the CBA stipulates he could claim economic damages (likely the average contract QBs were getting from teams this offseason), as well as additional compensation equal to double whatever those lost wages calculate to.
In the 1980s, free-agent baseball players proved MLB owners were conspiring against them to keep salaries down. An arbitrator awarded the players $280 million in damages.
Two years ago, Barry Bonds claimed MLB owners were also colluding against him when he was a radioactive free agent dogged by steroid allegations in 2007.
He could not produce hard evidence teams were working against him and arbitrator Frederic Horowitz ruled against Bonds – an example of what happens if you bring a collusion claim based on circumstantial evidence. Winning, experts said, requires more than just every team taking a pass on you.
"The challenge with making a successful collusion claim, both under antitrust law and under a sports collective bargaining agreement, is factually proving the wrongdoing," Marc Edelman, a sports law expert and law professor at Baruch College, said.
Giants owner John Mara has said he would be skittish about signing Kaepernick.
"All my years being in the league, I never received more emotional mail from people than I did about that issue," Mara told Sports Illustrated. "If any of your players ever (kneel for the anthem), we are never coming to another Giants game. It wasn't one or two letters. It was a lot ... It's an emotional, emotional issue for a lot of people, more so than any other issue I've run into."