John Mara believes that the NFL would have a good chance of prevailing in court if league owners wanted to force all players to stand at attention during the national anthem and thereby appease critics who don’t like to see players protesting during the song.
While the Giants president acknowledges that the First Amendment allows free speech and the ability to protest, he acknowledges that because players are in the workplace — i.e. an NFL stadium during games — the league could say it is simply adhering to a workplace rule by requiring players to stand.
“That point has been brought up quite often, and I understand that,” Mara said when asked this past week by Newsday about the issue of workplace rules. “Maybe if we were to have a legal battle on it, we would prevail on a legal basis.”
But Mara and many other owners, perhaps an overwhelming majority of them, believe that’s not the point, and that this is about more than forcing players to stand, in some cases against their will.
“[Going to court] is just not the way to go,” he said. “I’ve said to our players, ‘I’m asking you to stand, but if you decide that your conscience requires you to take a knee, I’m not going to like it, but I’m going to support your right to do it.’ ”
Mara acknowledged that he was upset to see three Giants — Damon Harrison, Landon Collins and Olivier Vernon — take a knee during the anthem before a Giants-Eagles game last month. But after multiple discussions with his own players and others from around the league in recent weeks, Mara has softened his position.
Other owners have expressed a similar reaction after listening to player concerns about wanting to improve race relations in America and address criminal justice system issues.
“I think my position has evolved a little bit,” Mara said. “When it first happened, I think I probably had a little more of a hard-line position on it. But since I’ve spoken to players and heard what they’ve had to say and tried to understand what it is they’re protesting, I think my position has evolved a little bit.”
While some players are expected to continue protesting during the anthem — Vernon is the only player on either the Giants or Jets to continue taking a knee through Week 6 — genuine progress appears to have been made on the issues of most concern to the players. And that could mean an eventual end to the protests.
Jets linebacker Demario Davis, among others, has suggested the demonstrations soon might end because the owners have taken their issues seriously. Even 49ers safety Eric Reid, whose former teammate, Colin Kaepernick, sparked the protests during the anthem last year, indicated that he soon might stand during the anthem because it appears that concrete steps will be taken by the league, in cooperation with the players, to act on their suggestions.
49ers owner Jed York, who has supported the players’ right to protest during the anthem, said most owners are sympathetic to the players.
“The more you can have conversation, the more you can actually see where other people are coming from, [and] I think the more enlightened you can be,” he said. “And for me, I am not the most left-wing person in the world. That’s not my background politically and how I grew up. But I think a lot of these things are common-sense issues, and when you actually sit down and talk to people and you know where people are coming from, it’s hard to not be sympathetic and empathetic.”
It is noteworthy, too, that Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, the most hard-line owner on the anthem issue and one of the most outspoken owners in the history of professional sports, left last week’s owners’ meetings in New York without speaking to reporters. Jones had threatened to bench any of his players who don’t stand for the anthem, and despite presenting his case to his fellow owners, he was met with significant resistance.
“Every team has its own policy, but I think the overwhelming majority of teams, just about every one of them, requests that their players stand but do not require it,” Mara said.
It also was significant that, despite intense pressure from President Donald Trump and a falloff in revenue and television ratings due in part to the protests, the league did not choose to change its policy for anthem decorum. The league recommends that players “should” stand but will not make them do so.
That’s actually an unpopular move among fans who are incensed by the protests during the anthem, and the league faces further pushback as a result. But Mara believes there is a more important principle at work.
“At the end of the day, this is America and we do have something called the First Amendment, and that’s the right of free speech and the right to protest,’’ he said. “It is one of the things our forefathers fought and died for, and that continues to be a principle that’s very important to most of us.”
Mara acknowledges the risks. “No question this has had an impact on the business, but I think it’s an important social issue,” he said.
In the end, he believes it will be worth it.
“I think sometimes you have to put the interests of your business behind the interests of issues that are more important than that,” he said.
Mara also believes the increased dialogue between the owners and players will create a more cooperative environment.
“To be honest with you, the dialogue and communication we’ve had with the players over the last three or four weeks has been the best in my memory,” he said.
That’s not an insignificant statement. Mara, 62, a third-generation NFL owner, has had a lifelong association with the league.
“We’ve had great conversations with the players,” he said. “I think the chance for them to sit down with owners and exchange ideas and exchange views has been very helpful and I think will be helpful going forward.”
It certainly won’t change the minds of fans who refuse to look at the protests during the anthem as anything other than disrespecting the flag and what the country stands for. But it should not be lost on those fans that a vast majority of NFL owners, many of whom espouse conservative political leanings and some of whom have donated vast sums of money to Trump’s inaugural committee, are willing to address the concerns of their players.
Even if it means their business will continue to take a hit.