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Arbitrator ruled that collusion hearing on NFL keeping Colin Kaepernick from playing can move ahead. Trump’s divisive fingerprints are all over this case

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

When Colin Kaepernick took the knee during the national anthem, it inspired other players to follow suit to protest racism and police brutality in America. It also led to an intense reaction that laid bare the deepest divides in America around race, how we define ourselves as a country, and what it means to be an American. Donald Trump joined the fray; not to heal, but to push his own, some would say racist and nationalist, agenda. The other day, a landmark decision was handed down in a suit that Kaepernick brought against the NFL. Arbitrator Stephen Burbank denied the NFL request for summary judgment. What does that mean? It means now that all 32 teams remain part of that suit, where collusion between the owners might be brought to bear to deny Kaepernick a right to play in the NFL. That could be the ruling. We’ll find out. Now, the NFL anthem policy will not be settled by the opening of the football season. And this trial, so-called trial, will take place at the end of the year. And America remains deeply divided on this issue still.

To help us parse through all of this is Charles Grantham, who is director of the Center for Sports Management and faculty associate at Seton Hall University. As a former union representative and executive with the National Basketball Players Association, he changed the nature of the NBA itself. He represented and worked with many players, and has been deeply, deeply involved in equity issues surrounding professional sports in our country. And Charles Grantham, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. We’ve seen you many times in the media all across this country. And welcome to The Real News for the first time.

CHARLES GRANTHAM: Thank you for having me. Very much.

MARC STEINER: Pleasure to have you with us. So as we jump into this, let’s listen earlier to what President Donald Trump had to say, and we’ll leap right into our conversation with Charles Grantham.

DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a [censored] off the field right now. Out. He’s fired.

MARC STEINER: I thought it was important to set that up, Charles, first, just because this is an issue that has really been used by some political figures and others to redivide this country, and has really set people up. We saw this odd thing where many African-Americans and people who want to fight racism in America were saying don’t go to NFL games, because they’re- because what the NFL owners are doing, and going after players taking the knee. Then you had a lot of other people saying we’re not going to go to the games because they’re taking the knee. I mean, this really has become symbolic of something much deeper in our society, I think.

CHARLES GRANTHAM: Yes but what I, what you see here I think is a failure of leadership from both management and labor to address this issue properly. It’s more complicated to obviously taking a knee, and a demonstration for with regard to policing our communities, et cetera. But in order to resolve this issue you’re going to have to have people talk to each other and listen to each other, and that don’t seem to be happening between both the owners and the commissioner, and also the players union. The players would like to see an engagement. They’d like to see the owners engaged in helping deal with an issue that is dear all of our hearts. And they don’t seem to be accommodating right now.

So with regard to this particular issue of collusion, let’s not get a little bit too excited about what this hearing said. It essentially said there’s enough information here to carry this forward and have a full hearing on whether or not there was a conspiracy to keep Colin Kaepernick out of the NFL. Now, there’s a linkage between all of this. A, the protest- now you have young players taking a knee and protesting the fact that Kaepernick is not employed. That’s sort of a separate protest within the context of social justice, and the issue that was raised initially.

So we were at the beginning of the process here. It could suggest that maybe the parties will finally get together and resolve not only the collusion and the protests, but also the anthem issue around it. It sits there now to be, perhaps to be settled, because we’re now moving into a full blown hearing. And one of the things I think is pretty clear now, that the depositions that they’ve had, there’s information that is coming out to support Kaepernick’s claim. Should have been that originally. Should have been probably driven- this entire thing should have been driven by the union, because it affects all players. And particularly affects those players now who have taken a knee or protested, and now they become free agents, and the whole question of collusion sits with them. Because are they going to retain their job, are they going to get a new contract, et cetera, all these things are yet to be answered.

So at a time when race is often the elephant in the room here, it’s front and center now. And the question of race- you know, I go back to the ’80s with the NBA when it was perceived that the NBA was too black, and it was drug-infested, and cocaine was a major issue with regard to some of the players. So we had a really bad public persona, perception. Our TV ratings were down. Our attendance was down. The finals were shown tape delay. But the one thing we learned and embraced is that we had a black product selling to white America. The NFL owners haven’t got that yet. That 80 percent of the players are black, embrace our culture. You’ve got to sell them as, promote them as the stars that they are. And engage in the issues that, of course, that they are now involved in. And we’re slow to respond.

And here, the President of the United States putting his finger in the relationship between players and owners, which is a collectively bargained relationship, and which the idea of a mandatory stand for the national anthem was never embodied in that agreement. So they weren’t really in violation of the agreement the first place. So while they may have a mandatory stand in the NBA, it was collectively negotiated and things were given to the players in return for that alliance. So we’re, we are right in the middle here. It doesn’t look like there’s any time soon that you’re going to see a resolve.

But one thing is for certain: That Colin Kaepernick, the fact that they said we are not going to dismiss the charge, that we are now going to present it for a full blown hearing, and there will be far more and many more depositions, far more facts that come out, I’m of the belief at some point there’s a settlement here. Because I don’t believe in the end the NFL would like to hear, or have some of those things become public. And nor do I believe that the idea that if in fact the players prevail there is an opportunity, therefore, to blow up the entire collective bargaining agreement, which I doubt will happen.

So there are a lot of factors here. But the biggest factor that made this so national was that for the first time we saw a president involve himself in an employer-employee relationship that really had nothing to do with him, on the one hand. On the other hand, there are several owners who are his staunch supporters. So as soon as that dialogue was created between the president and various owners, you knew that this had to take on a more serious implication, because there were conversations that took place between the President and some of those owners.

MARC STEINER: So let me ask a couple questions on what you just said. So if it is shown that there was collusion with the owners to deny Colin Kaepernick the right to play, I mean, what could be the possible outcome of this? I mean, I know you said earlier that they may settle this early so that does not happen, all the things will not come tumbling out in terms of what the owners and other people have said. But meanwhile, what can be the effect of all of this in terms of what it would mean for the NFL, other players? I mean, if, and if collusion was proven, or shown in a large way to be the most likely, be the facts in the case, what would that really mean?

CHARLES GRANTHAM: Well, first of all, there’s damages for Colin Kaepernick, in terms of how much money would be involved. Of course, usually collusion in anti-trust cases like this, you’re talking about treble damages. You’re talking about a substantial amount of money. And how it may affect the whole concept of free agency going forward is another issue that would have to be resolved.

So the ramifications could be great. But that’s also why I believe that between now and as this thing is drawn out in terms of its process, it could be another four or five six months, that the parties will come to terms with some other resolve, or some way to settle this thing without it getting to the point where the NFL is proven guilty. And by the way, you know, a clear preponderance of evidence is a very high standard. And they know that, as well. So that time is going to go by here, and I think you’ll start to see some adjustments. But I don’t believe that we’ll see the agreement being blown up. I don’t think that it’s going to be the maximum penalty that could be awarded here, which would be substantial financial damages. But at the same time, you’ve got to consider a better system in terms of the players who have protested, or the players who are likely to become free agents, and how they’re going to be affected in a system like this. Because collusion is a real difficult thing to prove, but it also is very damaging to your sport if, in fact, that is absolutely proven.

MARC STEINER: So there are two things here that I want to ask you before we conclude. And one has to do with a quote that you made that was in the Hill, which is the newspaper on Capitol Hill that comes out of Washington, D.C. And the quote is, “Politically, if you are an arbitrator in a case as big as this, there’s no way to throw it out. We knew that as soon as Donald Trump put his fingerprints on the issue.” So flesh that out for us. What’s behind that statement?

CHARLES GRANTHAM: Well, to flesh it out is an arbitrator is different than a judge. So that an arbitrator is a lot more vulnerable to politics, simply because he’s paid by both sides, and both sides have to agree to retain him. So he has a tendency to try to get the parties to resolve this and settle it in some way. So as soon as the President put his finger in, then all of a sudden that question of collusion, the collusion from the standpoint of the owners who had supported him financially, then you knew that this is going to take on just a greater importance than the typical grievance that may come down the pike here.

And so I knew that was going to go to a full hearing. There’s no way that he could throw this one out, A, because of the public pressure; B, the internally, and C, the players who have sacrificed their careers here at this point. Far more important than the initial, let’s say, a grievance that is normally filed. And remember that he’s not a judge. Usually cases like this in the past have been handled by what we call a special master. That means that the court would oversee this agreement, and it takes on more of a judicial legal trial, whereas a hearing in arbitration is not really a trial, it’s a hearing. And you don’t have a judge, you have an arbitrator. And an arbitrator who is compensated by both parties. So the grievance and grievance mechanism, in terms of dispute resolution, is different than going through the courts.

MARC STEINER: So one thing. I know that you’re not a political commentator. I know that you’re not actually the kind of questions in terms of the, philosophically where our country is going. But to me at the heart of this question, beyond what happens with the arbitrator and how this falls out in in December, we have a football season upon us where probably an agreement will not take place around the anthem. I know we’re going to see more comments from Donald Trump. This will continue to divide America. And you have been intimately involved with many players, know their feelings, and ideas, and thoughts. So I’m just curious what you think under all of this, what this might mean for the future of athletics in this country when you see so many black players saying it’s time to stand up and say no. There are a few players who are not black, white players who are who are standing with them. So I mean, what does all this mean to you in terms of what, what this portends for the future?

CHARLES GRANTHAM: Well, I just think that the presence- let’s go back to Nelson Mandela said sports can change the world.


CHARLES GRANTHAM: And essentially he did some of that within his continent in South Africa by using rugby, which was a predominately white sport, brought it into the black community. And when they had the World Championships in Johannesburg, the stadium was well integrated, full, and it was festive. So you use sport. And I think we’re starting to see, and you look at the basketball players speaking out in a similar fashion, but in different ways, is that our young athletes are taking a stand because they believe that they owe that to their community. That they have the forum and they can advance change and an agenda. And I think you’re going to see that changing agenda. But I think it starts with this friction and this clash right now.

But ultimately, I believe- if you take, again, look at the NBA. The NBA is far more receptive to the players being involved in social issues. Encouraging. And when Donald Sterling stepped out of line, they got him out of basketball. That was an action that they took. But that action started to help the attitude of the players, that hey, guess what, we may be in unison in trying to make these advancements. And so all of a sudden the owners, I think, in basketball are moving from being facilitators, i.e. showing how players act in the community by serving as a platform, to actually becoming engaged with the players. We see games now in South Africa. That’s because of a movement that we started back in the early ’90s. And now both the owners and players are committed to doing that. You’re going to see the same thing ultimately in football, I believe, but it’s got to flush itself out.

MARC STEINER: So do you see, I’m just curious again, as we conclude here, knowing the players as you do and the work you’ve done in the NBA, and continue to do throughout sports, do you see any kind of unity taking place between black players and some of the white players, Pacific Islander players, others in this? Or has this become, again, is there a bridge to be built here? Or is this continuing the divide?

CHARLES GRANTHAM: I think the bridge is thre. I think is it’s far more progressive than it has been. I think that the NAACP legal fund, for example- you know, that brought us the separate but equal. I think that the players’ ability to utilize the legal fund of the NAACP may help advance in similar issues that we’re dealing now within our community. I think that’s well on its way. I don’t know that it’s quite there yet, but it has to first start with players feeling responsible and engaged and having passion for assisting our community. And I think you’re starting to see that throughout college and professional level here.

MARC STEINER: Well, Charles Grantham, I really appreciate you taking the time. I know you have a tremendously busy schedule. It’s great to talk to you. And I look forward talking to you again and seeing how this unfolds. I think this is something that’s at the heart of of America, talking about who we are as Americans. I appreciate you taking the time.

CHARLES GRANTHAM: Totally agree with you. Just keep an eye on it. It may be slow. It’s going to take some time. But I think ultimately we’re going to see it resolve.

MARC STEINER: Nothing wrong with slow sometimes. Thank you so much, Charles.

CHARLES GRANTHAM: Okay. Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: Thank you.


MARC STEINER: Thank you so much. And thank you all for being with us here. I’m Marc Steiner at The Real News Network. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.