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The NFLPA made a grave mistake trusting Roger Goodell and the NFL on the national anthem policy

The NFLPA assumed the NFL was sincere about protecting players’ right to protest, despite plenty of evidence that Roger Goodell’s word means practically nothing.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday the NFL announced a modified national anthem policy that said that “all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” and the NFL Players Association was pissed.

As it damn well ought to be.

After a season of overtures to commit money to social justice and take player advocacy seriously, the NFL held a vote over players’ heads dictating how it feels they should behave when the national anthem is played. The NFLPA wrote that the vote “contradicts statements made to our player leadership,” then vowed to “review the new ‘policy’ and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”

As it damn well should.

The NFL is blithely stepping into morass of criticism from everywhere and potential legal challenges. Once again, the league played itself simply by doing anything at all. Some may enjoy seeing the league hang itself, but before we get to that there’s still an outstanding question in all this:

Where was the NFLPA before this policy was made?

In February, I asked the NFLPA how it was preparing for this exact situation. It said it wasn’t.

Every year before the Super Bowl, the NFLPA gives reporters time to ask questions to a panel that includes executive director DeMaurice Smith, president Eric Winston, and player members of the executive committee. The question I asked was:

I’m curious if you anticipate the NFL attempting to inhibit players’ ability to protest during games or before games during the offseason, and if so how are you preparing for that contingency?

Smith took the question, and responded:

I don’t know what the league plans on doing during the offseason. We don’t get invited to those meetings. But I think the only thing that I would emphasize is that both John Mara, who’s the head of the [NFL Management Council Executive Committee], and Roger Goodell, who’s obviously the commissioner of the National Football League, met with us and told us that they believed in the players’ right to protest. And I not only think that that was the right decision, but I also — and everybody should just pause for a second — actually think it was a really good thing for them to do and a good thing for them to say.

I say that only because it’s rare that I would say something good, and I just want to make sure everybody caught it.

I mean look, I think when John and Roger met with the players in Washington, we had a number of our men there, and that was one of the first things that came out of their mouths. I’m sure they have personal preferences, but when both of them come out and say that they respect the rights of the players to protest, I think that that was an extremely important moment in our relationship.

In sum: Smith’s response was that the NFLPA took Goodell and the owners at their word that they respect the players’ right to protest, and that it wasn’t anticipating anything to change regarding the anthem policy.

Here’s the thing about taking the NFL at its word: You shouldn’t.

Let’s use another important player issue — brain injuries — and look at how the NFL comes through on its good faith commitments.

in September, 2016, the league pledged $100 million to player safety in response to growing concerns about the long-term damage being done to players as a result of concussions and repetitive subconcussive hits. That pledge sounded good! Then it promptly fell apart.

First, the NFL reneged on $16 million of that funding because it had a grudge against one of the researchers on a study being conducted in partnership with the National Institute of Health. Then it blew $60 million of its pledge on “technology” — for example, helmet design, something with limited and rapidly diminishing returns on actually preventing concussions.

And finally, last year ESPN revealed the one concussion study the NFL had funded all by itself in the year since its pledge. The study was about horse jockeys, not football players, and was comically run:

The study is led by an Australian researcher who once described American coverage of CTE as “carry-on and hoo-hah” and a British doctor whose concussion presentations sometimes have included flippant jokes and video of tumbling jockeys set to slapstick music. At one presentation, the widow of a CTE victim, a former British soccer star, was so offended she stormed out of the room.

Point being: If you’re DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA, or an NFL player, I don’t know why you’d ever trust what Goodell or an NFL owner tells you.

And to be fair, we don’t know what sort of discussions have taken place between the NFLPA and the NFL since February. In his press conference, Goodell said the NFL had talked to “tens, if not hundreds of players” about the anthem. I reached out to the NFLPA for comment, and was told by a spokesman that, “For now, we’re going to stick to our statement.”

An excellent Twitter thread by ESPN’s Howard Bryant suggested that the NFLPA was confused how to handle player activism from the jump, and that Smith and company were content to let the players who were most passionate about social justice negotiate with the NFL themselves. But by effectively staying on the sidelines, the NFLPA gave up control of what became a labor issue.

Again, I don’t know what exactly went on in the NFLPA. I do know that by February, supporting activism was at least part of their promotional material. I wish I had followed up my question then.

The one thing I’d like to know now is whether Goodell and the NFLPA ever hashed out exactly what “respect the rights of the players to protest” actually meant. Because I’m sure that’s exactly what Goodell will say he’s doing with the new anthem policy, and now the NFLPA will have to battle a document that the league can credulously call a “compromise” with the backing of yet another strings-attached $100 million pledge.

So again, my question to the NFLPA stands: Where were you?