AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There's less than a month to go before the start of the NFL regular season, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still a player without a team. Last season he was with the San Francisco 49ers. Now, during the preseason, he began a silent protest of social injustice against minorities and police violence. Instead of standing during the national anthem before games, he would kneel. This sparked outrage among those who said he was being unpatriotic. He also had a lot of supporters, and now those supporters allege that NFL owners are freezing him out because of his political beliefs.
NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us to talk more about this controversy. Hey there, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi Audie.
CORNISH: So is there any way to prove this idea of collusion to keep Kaepernick out?
GOLDMAN: It's very hard to prove, Audie - no evidence of backroom deals being made. But it doesn't look good as one quarterback after another gets signed and it's not Colin Kaepernick. Jay Cutler this week signed with Miami, coming out of retirement and basically having to be talked into playing again. Baltimore signed a quarterback without NFL experience, a guy who played most recently in the Arena Football League. Now, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week, no collusion. Although it is safe to say there are NFL owners who worry about signing Kaepernick and the message that would send.
CORNISH: Now, before we get to that, I want to ask about Kaepernick's abilities on the field. I mean how does he compare to these other quarterbacks?
GOLDMAN: Excellent question. He led San Francisco to one Super Bowl following the 2012 season and to two conference championships. Of course that's ancient history to teams that want to win now. A more important stat is last year. On arguably the worst team in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick threw 16 touchdown passes and had only four interceptions in 11 starts. So he showed he can still play. And when you consider there are 32 starters, 32 backups, 32 emergency quarterbacks who carry clipboards during games and Colin Kaepernick isn't on a roster, it's questionable.
CORNISH: The other thing that his defenders note is that when you look back at the controversies the NFL has had over the last couple of years, there are players who have done a lot worse than kneeling during the national anthem, and they're still playing.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, players who have committed domestic violence, rape, vehicular homicide. They've been busted for drugs and brutal dogfighting. We remember that. You know, there are people, though, who consider what Colin Kaepernick did beyond the pale, taking a knee during the National Anthem, which really took on a life of its own. He says he was protesting overall treatment of people in black communities during a time of great tensions following shootings by police of African-Americans. Kaepernick said early on he was not against the military but wanted to help motivate social change. But for many fans, it was interpreted as un-American, unpatriotic. And some owners worry about that.
CORNISH: What is the NFL saying about all this?
GOLDMAN: Well, as I mentioned Roger Goodell denies collusion. He said recently that teams make decisions based on what's in the best interest of their team, and they make these decisions individually. I talked to Dr. Harry Edwards today. He's the well-known sociologist who's really been at the intersection of sport and politics and activism for 50 years. He thinks the NFL needs to get out in front while it can. Here he is.
HARRY EDWARDS: I sent an email to the commissioner of the National Football League urging him in the strongest possible language not to make Colin Kaepernick a martyr. Let him play football. Let him do whatever he's going to do, and manage it.
GOLDMAN: And Audie, you know, this isn't going away. A protest was announced yesterday in front of NFL headquarters for later this month. Filmmaker Spike Lee is taking an active role in that, as are several protest groups. And there's a petition circulating on change.org targeting the NFL, its teams and league sponsors and threatening boycotts of the NFL and sponsors' products. The petition is hoping to get a million signatures by the start of the regular season next month.
CORNISH: That's NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thank you.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROANE NAMUH AND REVA DEVITO SONG, "SHOULD HAVE KNOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.