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Behind the scenes on the NFL owners’ national anthem decision

Why did the owners respond to their loudest critics? And where do they, and the players, go from here?

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A handful of NFL owners arrived in Atlanta last week with no intent on supporting any new rule that would prohibit player protests, including kneeling, during the national anthem. A California contingent — Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos, San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York, and Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis — was chief among them.

But then hours of owners’ discussions began in their Atlanta spring meeting. Followed by cajoling. And politicking.

Actually, a strident move was afoot among some owners long before that to “move the needle,” to end these protests “come hell or high water,” as an NFL high-ranking official had told me in March.

It was Atlanta Falcons executive Rich McKay who said after the league announced its new anthem edict: “We didn’t just get here. We are talking months and hours and hours of discussion on this.”

“This” is the NFL’s new anthem policy: Players, team, and league personnel on the field must stand for the anthem and “respect” the flag or they can choose to stay in the locker room. Those who do not comply on the field will see their teams fined by the league, and those who do not comply can also be disciplined, including fines, by their franchises.

Some owners wanted a harder line. No protest, period.

Other owners wanted even more player protest leeway, as those owners saluted the players’ voices speaking out against police brutality and social injustice.

This is why the owners believe they created a compromise rule.

“Every constituency was heard,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “Every interest was considered. Nobody came to the meeting with a blank.”

Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said the rule was devised “to get the focus back on football.’’

Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill echoed that with “let’s get back to the game.’’

Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney said: “We’ve come to a place we’re comfortable with.”

York wasn’t. He abstained in voting. Davis, too.

Spanos joined the other initial detractors and supported the rule in hopes of presenting a unified league front. The cajoling, the politicking from the hard-liners had worked. Persuasion on what it all meant on several fronts had worked.

It was as if the majority of them borrowed and tweaked a familiar line — that this was required “to make the NFL great again.”

President Donald Trump hit the league hard. He hit the anthem issue hard. The owners caved.

Sure, they all preferred that players stand during the anthem. But mixed into that was a desire to keep their fruitful relationships with the White House and Congress intact.

It is a long, layered relationship, one that the league has nurtured since its existence and one that has benefitted them well. From their longstanding anti-trust exemption to the new legal gambling landscape not yet crystallized, the league’s favorable pipeline to Washington, D.C., is critical to its goals. Trump knew it. They know it.

“I honestly believe that had we done nothing that the anthem protest would have subsided on its own,’’ an NFL owner told me on Wednesday night. “But the risk of giving Trump another football to kick was too great. A lot of his fan base is our fan base.”

But what about the NFL fans who sided with the players’ protests, he was asked?

“Important,’’ the owner said. “But which one created the most ruckus? It’s the one that got him elected.’’

Never let it be said that in this age of the internet that simple letters mailed have lost their sting.

A bevy of NFL owners — coaches, too — have squeaked about the huge volume of letters they have received during the course of the players’ protests. I have seen some of them. They are nasty. Some are vile.

Owners connect that to bad business.

“We are a strong league,” one owner told me. “But there is a difference between strength and sustained strength. Between earnings and profits. And, especially, the issue of future growth. I have always believed that we are stewards of the league, passing through for a while. It is our job to find the best compromise for the issues surrounding the game while growing it.

“We gave the players nearly $100 million to help their causes. We are going to do more with them in their causes and in our communities. We listened to our fans who want the anthem and the flag respected. There is room for all of us to get along and keep the game healthy – the right way.”

I have talked to a few NFL players, especially veterans, who believe the root of their current problem is that they bargained away too much power to the NFL in their last collective bargaining agreement. They believe that is why the league felt so comfortable moving boldly forward with this new rule without more player involvement.

While the NFLPA and some players are still figuring out how to respond to this new policy, others do not believe this is a fight — the ability to protest during the national anthem — worth pursuing. They want to build their communities, play football, and earn their livings, all while finding alternative ways to protest.

New Giants safety Michael Thomas was at the forefront of player protest when he was with the Miami Dolphins. He talked about the strain, how he was edgily, initially received by his locker room peers and by Dolphins ownership. He talked about how that transformed last season into a more understanding, more welcoming and supportive environment.

“And now it’s a different time from even that,” Thomas told me in a phone interview on Tuesday night. “The players are trying to figure out what is going on. Our union is looking at its options. I’ve talked to Colin (Kaepernick). I’ve talked to Eric (Reid). They are in the middle of their (collusion) cases (vs. the league), but they know what’s happening, they see it. I think it’s clear where everyone stands.”

Thomas is a member of the NFLPA executive committee. It is a 10-member group of players that is a key part of the union.

“I’m in it, in this, and have been for a while, so it’s a whole different take for me,’’ Thomas said. “I’d like to see more people get in it. I’d like to see what others on the outside have to say, what they think solutions are, how they can help. We need more constructive voices from the outside to join the inside.

“Our voice is about police brutality and social injustice and our communities. It’s all about that, not the anthem, not the flag. I’m trying to do more, come up with answers in our communities with scholarships, with communication. That’s the key for the players and it should be for the league. That’s how we’ll make it.’’

When owners talk about “the right way” and players talk about their community goals, there’s more in common with that than they think.

This is the consistent missing link in the NFL owners/players equation. Fix that, build that, and two powerful forces can become one.