An explosive combination of protests during the national anthem and continuous presidential criticism rocked the NFL to its foundations last week, and a fascinating new report suggests that the twin threats to the NFL’s bottom line left owners scrambling for a possible solution.
Led by the example of then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, NFL players had been protesting for more than a year, taking a knee or remaining seated during the national anthem as a way to bring attention to racial injustice and police brutality. But two nights before Week 3’s Sunday games, President Trump threw rocket fuel on the players’ candle flames by criticizing both players for kneeling and teams for allowing the protests to happen. Seeing the joyful, raging resonance the issue had with his base, Trump kept up the public attacks over the next few days.
ESPN reporters Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham tracked the days after Monday night’s final protests, showing a league in crisis, with owners seeking a way out of the mire and players seeking to expand on their sudden leverage, all while Trump continues to rain down sneering insults and mocking advice. The entire article is well worth a read, particularly to see the seeds of how NFL Players Association president DeMaurice Smith is trying to handle his players’ newfound power, but the portraits of several owners that emerge are both intriguing and exactly what you’d expect:
Major owners, including Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the Patriots, are keenly aware of the negative “optics” of the protests. With the NFL losing TV ratings and sponsors growing nervous, the league can ill afford a heavy politicization of the game, something most fans don’t want.
At a Tuesday afternoon owners meeting, the owners expressed frustration that NFL communications vice president Joe Lockhart had appeared to take the fight to Trump; owners didn’t want to engage in a war of words with the president even though “they were all pissed at the president,” one source told ESPN.
The Washington Redskins‘ Daniel Snyder apparently complained, over and over again, that the league was about to lose a “$40 million” sponsor; his emphasis on that number apparently amused some owners who noted that it “only” meant a loss of less than $1 million per team, and teams recorded an average profit of $101 million last year.
Jones noted that he had indeed spoken to Trump, which Trump noted on Twitter, and that the president had no intention of backing down on his criticism of the NFL. Regardless of whether insulting a professional sports league was the best use of the president’s time, that meant the NFL couldn’t just hope for this all to blow over.
The league itself hoped, somewhat optimistically, that this could be parlayed into some kind of show of unity between players and owners; one idea called for a “Team America” patch to be applied to all uniforms this weekend. That idea, fortunately, didn’t live long. “We need to do better than that,” one owner reportedly said.
That meeting produced no concrete results, nor did a Tuesday sit-down between owners and players that included the New York Giants’ Jonathan Casillas, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Chris Long, and the Patriots’ Devin McCourty. At that meeting, the players contended that many owners were very much in alignment, either politically or financially, with Trump. But not all owners accepted that blanket generalization. “I’m not with Trump,” the Miami Dolphins‘ Stephen Ross said. “And I don’t mind anyone printing that anywhere.”
In the end, divides between owners on how to proceed are apparently far wider than expected. There’s no concrete plan on how to handle the protest matter going forward, from dedicating time during games to dedicating specific weeks during the season. But if there’s any optimism to be drawn from this, ESPN suggests, it’s that the conversations tamped down for many years between management and players are now actually happening.
Owners have agreed that Goodell was wise not to throw down a universal directive that players must stand for the anthem. That would have sent optics spiraling in another direction, satisfying one contingent of fans but alienating another.
“We can’t just tell them to stop,” Goodell said, but what the NFL can do remains very much an open question.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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