On the afternoon of June 23, a civil rights activist sent an email directly to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, hoping to save the league from making a colossal PR blunder.

Dr. Harry Edwards, a trained sociologist, had been an adviser to sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith when they raised their fists on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. Last year, he was a regular sounding board for Colin Kaepernick when the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback began to kneel for the national anthem to protest racial inequality and conservative pundits like Tomi Lahren raked him as a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking crybaby.” Now with a new season fast approaching, Kaepernick was still unsigned, even as scrap-heap players who couldn’t match the record of a one-time Super Bowl quarterback were getting precious roster spots. Reporters had begun to openly suggest Kaepernick, good enough to sign a $127 million contract in 2014, was being blackballed—retaliation by a famously autocratic organization against a player who had dared to embarrass it.

But Edwards saw the Kaepernick saga in a larger and more politically fraught context. He saw a mixed-race player who challenged a league in which some 70 percent of the athletes are African-American and all but one owner and more than 80 percent of the fans are white.Edwards also saw an increasingly divided country led by a president who seemed to relish stoking racial tensions. If the NFL could not find a way to put Kaepernick on a roster, Edwards reasoned, the league risked turning a workplace dispute into a full-blown and far more embarrassing racial controversy. In his email to Goodell, which he shared with POLITICO, Edwards spelled it out as clearly as he could: “DON’T MAKE HIM A MARTYR!”

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