AAF's reported payroll issues prove why Colin Kaepernick was right to balk at league

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

Five days. Two wins versus professional football leagues. First the NFL. Now the fledgling Alliance of American Football.

Not a shabby week for Colin Kaepernick.

By now, seemingly everyone has heard about Kaepernick’s first victory: the collusion case against the NFL that pundits said he could never win, because the league would never capitulate to such an obstinate player – let alone one who dragged the billionaire owners into a town hall meeting of lawyers, discovery demands and prying depositions. This was the NFL, right? The league that whomped both the New England Patriots and Tom Brady with a few media leaks and some wobbly science on (possibly) deflated footballs? Who the hell was Colin Kaepernick to think he could take on the league and actually win anything?

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Welp.

Colin Kaepernick took heat for reportedly asking for a $20 million deal to play in the Alliance of American Football. He hasn’t played for a team since the 2016 season. (AP)
Colin Kaepernick took heat for reportedly asking for a $20 million deal to play in the Alliance of American Football. He hasn’t played for a team since the 2016 season. (AP)

Turns out he’s the guy who will be cashing at least one more league check thanks to the collusion case that ended when the NFL did the unthinkable and simply paid an undisclosed settlement to make it all go away. Whatever the payout (and I’m a firm believer it’s sizable), Kaepernick also walked away with something more valuable than money in the long view of history. No matter how the league spins it, when that bell rung for the final round in the collusion case, the NFL didn’t come out for the fight. And make no mistake, if the league was certain it had a win, it could have forced the entire case to the finish line. Just like it did with Brady.

Chalk it up for Kaepernick. 1-0.

Victory No. 2 was more subtle. It arrived Tuesday when it was revealed by The Athletic that the Alliance of American Football had missed at least a portion of its payroll after only one week. Players were supposed to get paid last Friday and some didn’t. On social media, weird things popped up on payday. Like an oddly cryptic post from Birmingham Iron cornerback Jamar Summers, who tweeted:


That was retweeted by Iron wide receiver Tobais Palmer, who also posted and later deleted an emoji featuring a stack of cash.

By Tuesday, the fledgling startup appeared to have achieved (or survived) some kind of critical event, having sold a controlling share of the league for a $250 million investment from the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes owner, Tom Dundon.

Why is all that a win for Kaepernick? Perception matters, and there was a juncture months ago when he could have undersold himself to the AAF and didn’t. A decision that got roundly criticized when a $20 million salary requirement (which I believe is true) was leaked to the Associated Press in recent days. While the leaker of that salary figure was anonymous, it stands to reason that it came from inside the AAF, which apparently had a less-than-fruitful exchange with Kaepernick’s camp when the two sides talked figures.

In the fallout – which came long after the sides stopped speaking – Kaepernick was shelled by critics for the alleged $20 million salary demand. Sources added some wrinkles to the narrative Tuesday. And financial liquidity of the AAF was certainly a part of the story.

What’s clear is that some NFL agents who dealt with the AAF had some concerns about the overall financial liquidity of the league prior to the latest $250 million investment. Particularly those agents who have institutional knowledge of XFL’s splash in 2001, which ended in failure after only one season despite $100 million in financial backing from NBC and the WWE. For agents with players who haven’t been good enough to make an NFL roster and are doing whatever they can to maintain a job in some level of football, that XFL failure means little.

Orlando Apollos quarterback <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/27742/" data-ylk="slk:Garrett Gilbert">Garrett Gilbert</a>, left, is congratulated by teammates after catching a pass from receiver Jalin Marshall for a 5-yard touchdown during the first half of an Alliance of American Football game against the Atlanta Legends earlier this month. (AP)
Orlando Apollos quarterback Garrett Gilbert, left, is congratulated by teammates after catching a pass from receiver Jalin Marshall for a 5-yard touchdown during the first half of an Alliance of American Football game against the Atlanta Legends earlier this month. (AP)

For Kaepernick, it’s a whole other story. Not only because he and his representation (and others in the NFL) still believe he’s an NFL-caliber quarterback, but also because he has had better football opportunities. If Kaepernick wanted to play a high level of football that wasn’t the NFL, he could have been playing for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League. It stands to reason that if Kaepernick passed on an opportunity to join the CFL because he and his camp are insistent that he’s an NFL player getting the shaft, he’s not going to jump into a lesser-established league that may have problems making payroll.

Which brings us to the financial wrinkle. First and foremost, it’s inarguable that Kaepernick would have been the most recognizable name in the AAF. He would have been the star who drew the most eyeballs and curiosity, not to mention provided a massive amount of publicity for a league that needs everything it can get in the first season. His inclusion in the AAF would have meant front-stage coverage from every major network and outlet, along with a landslide of social media imprints. Maybe even some higher rung of Nike investment or visibility.

Bottom line, Kaepernick would have represented one of the biggest stories in America. Across all spectrums, not just sports. And as an added bonus, if he played at a high level, his inclusion would have added a thumping storyline for NFL critics, who would have had a field day pumping a spring league that was suddenly showing up commissioner Roger Goodell and the billionaire owners who had allegedly locked out Kaepernick.

If that’s not dice-roll worth $20 million, it’s certainly a gamble that’s worth a lot. But it could also be a gamble the league couldn’t afford, depending on whose version of events you happen to believe about the AAF’s sudden “sale” to Dundon. At the very least, it suggests that Kaepernick knows his worth to a league that is going to need to make long and lasting strides.

The AAF may eventually get there without Kaepernick. Or it may face more weeks like this one, where late paychecks and new sweeping investment continue to raise eyebrows. Either way, the first round and likely only round between the AAF went to Kaepernick.

That’s 2-0. If anyone is counting.

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