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Resolve the Anthem Issue? NFL Owners and Players Seek Common Ground at the League Meeting

All eyes are on lower Manhattan as the NFL owners and players seek common ground on the issue that has riven the football world. Finding a solution that satisfies all sides won’t be easy

NEW YORK—NFL team owners began arriving Monday night at the downtown Manhattan hotel where the most important conversations of the 2017 season will take place today.

For most of this football season, America’s most popular pro sports league has been at the center of a fractious national debate about players choosing to demonstrate during the national anthem to raise awareness for social issues including racial injustice and police brutality. There are those, among them the President and some NFL team owners, who consider such demonstrations blasphemous; on the other end of the spectrum are those who see no greater display of patriotism than peaceful protests in the name of a better America. Today, at the quarterly NFL league meetings, owners, players and commissioner Roger Goodell will try to forge a path forward that satisfies all sides, which is no easy task.

“We’re going to listen,” Texans owner Bob McNair said last night, on his way to dinner.

Bears owner George McCaskey paused briefly after checking in. “I’m looking forward to the discussion,” he said.

At the least, a willingness to listen is a good start for the discussions that will take place this week. In a memo to club owners last week, Goodell said that the NFL would present a plan at this week’s meeting to “move past” the anthem controversy, with ideas such as an in-season platform to promote the work of players on the underlying social issues that have driven some to demonstrate during the anthem.

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The league meeting is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Beforehand, at 10 a.m., a delegation from the NFL Players Association that includes executive director DeMaurice Smith, union president Eric Winston and about a dozen active players, will meet with a smaller group of owners. San Francisco safety Eric Reid, who joined Colin Kaepernick when his former teammate began demonstrating during the anthem last season, has said he would be in New York for the meeting. Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told the Tacoma News Tribune he will be calling into the meeting from Seattle, and the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins and the Browns’ Kenny Britt will be among the other players participating.

It’s a credit to both Goodell and Smith that they’re making this unprecedented confab between owners and players at a league meeting happen. The smaller conference earlier in the day with the players is not intended to focus on the anthem, but rather how the NFL can be a better partner in supporting the issues that players care about most. Ultimately, that’s the best way forward for all interests.

Much focus has centered on a potential policy change that the NFL could make regarding the anthem. Would they require players to stand for it, like the NBA? Or play the anthem while players are still in the locker room, as was done prior to 2009? Asked if he anticipates any changes to the anthem policy, league spokesperson Joe Lockhart said yesterday, “I anticipate a very productive presentation of things we can do to work together. Beyond that, I don’t anticipate anything else.” Those words were very carefully selected.

More than anything else, the players who have demonstrated during the national anthem want their voices to be heard and their interests to be supported. (Jenkins told The MMQB last month, “There is the awful truth that if we just go and do the work silently, it doesn’t get the attention that it needs.”) Instituting a new rule requiring all players to stand during the anthem would run counter to that and, like President Trump’s comments last month calling for owners to fire any “sons of bitches” who knelt during the anthem, would spur a fresh round of intense interest in how players would respond during that weekend’s games. As it is now, TV networks aren’t usually showing the anthem during the broadcast, and the number of players demonstrating in some way during the anthem has dwindled down to beneath 20. The NFL, the owners and the league’s sponsors are clearly very eager to move the attention off the anthem controversy—not intensify it.

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The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones made finding a middle ground more complicated when he issued an ultimatum after his team’s Week 5 game that any player who did not stand for the anthem would not play in the game. Jones, too, is one of the league’s most influential team owners. But the Cowboys had a bye last week, and this week’s league meeting offers the opportunity for the heat to be taken off of Cowboys players who may feel caught between following the mandate of their employer and being perceived to have sold out.

To be frank, no one is going to solve complicated and deep-seated social issues like racial inequality by meeting for a few hours on a Tuesday morning. But if the players feel like the platform that underlies the anthem demonstrations is being supported, by the league as a whole and by their individual clubs, then these demonstrations will have achieved something. That’s the clearest way forward.

Notably, the NFL did not extend an invitation to the former player who started this entire movement, and who lives nearby in lower Manhattan, Kaepernick. On the other hand, to the credit of Goodell and some of the owners, the NFL has taken real steps to both hear and see firsthand from its players what they’re taking a stand against. Goodell spent a day in Philadelphia with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and players, as well as local officials, to learn about the criminal justice reform work Jenkins has been leading in his community, the cause for which he raises his fist during the anthem before games. Another week, Goodell went on a police ride-along with Miami-area officers and Dolphins players Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas, who have either kneeled or stayed in the locker room during the anthem.

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On Monday the NFL confirmed an ESPN report that the league would be joining Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin in formally supporting a piece of federal criminal justice reform legislation, a bipartisan bill that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders among other reforms. Asked if he thought this decision might receive pushback from the Trump administration, Lockhart said he didn’t know the White House’s position on the bill. “I know this has overwhelming bipartisan support,” he said, “and we think it’s the right thing to do, so that’s what our focus is.”

Perhaps even more difficult to come by than bipartisan support is a common ground on the issue of anthem demonstrations. But a social-justice platform addressing the underlying issues would be a good landing spot—as long as it is done correctly and genuinely, and shows to players real respect and concern for their viewpoints. In other words, it will take more than shiny branding or some PSAs played during game broadcasts. That’s a task for the long term, one that will take much more time than a single league meeting.

But today, in 31 NFL cities, and among sponsors and fans all across the country, and certainly at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, all eyes will be on a hotel in downtown New York. It’s not up to a sports league to fix the ills of a nation that feels more divided than at any time in recent memory. But what the NFL can do is work together so those gulfs don’t grow even wider.

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