SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York has been one of the NFL’s most outspoken owners when it comes to supporting the right of players to protest, as protests during the national anthem have dotted the league in the past year-plus.
On the heels of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick filing a grievance alleging NFL collusion to keep him from playing in the NFL, York was asked Thursday whether Kaepernick has been treated fairly by the league since he opted out of his contract in March.
“It’s very difficult for me to say that with Colin being here for a long period of time,” York said. “Obviously, there’s the lawsuit that’s going on, so it’s hard for me to get into any details or really share my opinion, but I don’t believe that there’s base to that claim that he’s being blackballed.”
Earlier this week, York attended the NFL’s fall owners meetings in New York, taking part in both the general meeting with the other 31 owners and the special meeting that included 13 current or former players, 11 owners and representatives from the league and the NFL Players Association.
The latter meeting took place Tuesday afternoon and included York and 49ers safety Eric Reid. The focus of those conversations was how to address topics such as racial inequality and police brutality, which were initially the issues Kaepernick wanted to highlight when he first knelt during the national anthem last year.
“I think the more that you had owners and players together, not just me meeting with 49ers players but several owners meeting with players from different teams, and it’s not about collective bargaining issues, it’s not about workplace environment, it’s really understanding where different people come from,” York said. “You’re seeing people who might not understand that firsthand and they’re getting a much better perspective.”
York also emphasized that the meetings in New York were meant to focus on listening and learning rather than some sort of negotiation intended to get players to stand for the national anthem in exchange for something.
“This is very, very important: The owners were very clear in our meeting with just players and owners that this is not a trade,” York said. “This is not, ‘We’re going to do this for you and quid pro quo, you stand up.’ That was not there. From a players’ standpoint, I don’t think that they want to give up their First Amendment rights for any amount of money or any amount of support for things from a social standpoint.
“I think we want to have a better partnership and a better understanding of one another to say, ‘We would like to get back to just playing football.’ I don’t think anybody should be ashamed of saying that because our fans are telling you we want to get back to football. But our players are saying, ‘We want our message to be heard clearly and loudly,’ and that’s what we’re trying to figure out. … We’re not going to make you stand, and we want to make our country and our communities a better place, not because you’re forcing us to but because we’re compelled to. I think that’s the important thing here.”
Because York is the owner of the team where the protests originated, he has offered a perspective that’s a bit different from other owners’ perspectives. York said Thursday there might be misconceptions about his political background because of his support for Kaepernick, Reid and other players, but York acknowledged that he has grown more open-minded living in California.
“For me to meet with the LGBTQ community, for me to meet with folks that have different racial backgrounds and different ethnic backgrounds and different socioeconomic backgrounds, again, I think everything starts from conversation,” York said. “And the more you can have conversation, the more you can actually see where other people are coming from, I think the more enlightened you can be. And for me, I am not the most left-wing person in the world. I realize people are trying to sort of paint me as that. … That’s not my background politically and how I grew up, but I think a lot of these things are common-sense issues, and when you actually sit down and talk to people and you know where people are coming from, it’s hard to not be sympathetic and empathetic.”
Last year, York and the Niners offered support for Kaepernick with a $1 million donation to causes that were in lockstep with issues Kaepernick was trying to call attention to. York also spoke out against the North Carolina bathroom bill, which would have required those who identify as transgender to use the restroom that matches their biological sex.
As for Kaepernick, Reid has already made it clear he believes that his former quarterback has been blackballed and deserves a job. But Reid also has praised York for how he has handled the protests and how he approached the owners meetings.
“He’s had the most experience with players protesting since we were the first team to do it, and he spoke up, which was cool,” Reid said. “I really appreciated the role that he played in that meeting.”