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There’s no easy answer for the NFL on player protests

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The NFL can’t tell players what to do when it comes to their voice, but there are still some owners who want to.

Houston Texans v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

ORLANDO — Athletic activism. Corporate responsibility.

Those are fancy phrases the league coyly coined before it arrived here for its annual meeting. The distilled version is this — what to do about players who still plan on kneeling for the national anthem?

There is a wide swath of opinion among NFL ownership.

There is a chasm.

Some (see the Texas duo of Jerry Jones and Bob McNair) want it to stop right now, forbid it for the 2018 season, mandate it, legislate it. Others call that foolish, not to mention unconstitutional (see Jeffrey Lurie and Christopher Johnson).

Some owners think of their relationship with players as owner/employee and that’s it. Other owners see their relationship with players as a partnership.

There is old-school thought. There is new-school thought.

There is fire raging in this dialogue among the owners.

“We’re going to talk about it more today, look at it in the May meeting and have more conversations with the players about it,” Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney said.

Rooney is viewed as a progressive owner. A fair one.

But even he struggles with the protest rights of players and the demands of business.

“I see the anthem issue as a little bit of both,” Rooney said.


One high-ranking NFL official told me Monday that these owners meetings and subsequent ones are all about “moving the needle” toward no national anthem protests by the players. About getting there, in some circles among them, “come hell or high water.”

An NFL team senior vice president asked me: “And just how? I don’t know how you can force players to do something like this. How can you do that and be under the law? I guess that’s what we are going to be talking about here this week. Because I know a lot of people that want it have put a lot of time into finding a way to make it happen.’’

The NFL has agreed to donate nearly $100 million to social injustice causes in response to its players’ activism. The fact that it is continuing to discuss social injustice issues with players and finding roles to further assist them and their communities are moves opposite of mandates and more toward collaboration.

But owners shifting toward a hard line forbidding protests during the national anthem is still one potential conclusion.

One of the hurdles the league faces is the players were not protesting the league’s lack of involvement in finding solutions. They were primarily protesting America’s attitudes, policies, and treatment of social injustice.

A key for the league is to continue to find ways to partner and advocate the players’ concerns while not crushing their spirit.

“Me tell a player not to protest?’’ asked Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone. “Not me. It’s their constitutional right. But I’m not trying to be in that fight. You’re asking the wrong cat.’’

But Marrone must realize that as an NFL head coach, as a leader of NFL men, he is squarely in that fight.

New Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich said: “In a way, we all want the same things, but sometimes it’s tough to get it and tough to come together. There is social injustice and our players have spoken up about it. And I guess I’m naive enough to think that if we just trust each other and do the right things that we can find solutions together. I am in favor of players always having a voice.’’


What is that voice?

How much is too much in some owners’ eyes?

Colin Kaepernick still does not have a job. Free agent safety Eric Reid thinks he’s being blackballed because he took a knee alongside Kaepernick and continued to do so last season. The disparity, the atmospheric climate last season among some NFL teams whose players routinely protested during the national anthem compared to those teams and players that did not was clearly an ownership-influenced situation.

Owners have already found ways to let their players know exactly where they stand as owners on the anthem protest. Now these owners begin to share those thoughts here, with their peers.

There is diversity among them on the rights of players to protest involving the national anthem.

There is no diversity among them on the idea that the business model improves with the disappearance of anthem protests.

There should be no ambiguity among these owners on this — the days of simply telling NFL players this is what you will do when it comes to their voice, their causes, their rights is over.

The players have spoken.

Now it’s the owners’ turn.