NFL owners had hoped the controversy surrounding player protests during the national anthem would have gone away by now. But as they prepare for their regularly scheduled fall meetings in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, the debate surrounding the issue remains intense and the stakes are exceedingly high. With the president doubling down on his condemnation of any player who doesn’t stand for the anthem, and with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatening to bench players who protest during the song, the emotions continue to run high.
As divided as the country is over the anthem protocol and with President Donald Trump challenging the NFL to “fire” players who kneel, there are also deep disagreements among the owners about how to proceed. While Jones and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross have been outspoken and adamant in their belief that all players should stand for the anthem, 49ers owner Jed York and Jaguars owner Shad Khan have expressed support for players who protest during the anthem.
“You have to give Trump credit, people are confused on the First Amendment versus patriotism, that if you exercise your First Amendment, you’re not a patriot, which is crazy,” Khan said Thursday in an interview with Crain’s Chicago Business. “People are confused on it, [Trump] knew he could hit on it and take advantage. I think what we’re seeing is the great divider overcoming the great uniter.”
Jones is adamant that players should stand and worries that fallout from the anthem debate threatens the economic vitality of the sport.
“We have a chance of damaging not just the game, but in this particular case, the Cowboys franchise,” Jones said Friday on his KRLD-FM radio show. “Let’s come up with ways that we really can give a message about police brutality or we can give a message about [income] disparity. We can give those messages, but we won’t be able to give it if we’re not as substantive as we are, and this flag issue is taking away from how substantive we are.”
The polarization that has developed over the situation is why these meetings have taken on added significance. It remains to be seen whether there can be a path forward for a league whose bottom line is now being threatened by the kind of partisanship that has roiled the nation as a whole.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hopes to find some sort of middle ground on an issue for which there may not actually be a middle ground. Trump has framed the debate as an either/or proposition — either players stand for the anthem and show the respect the president believes should be required or they don’t and deserve the kind of consequences that Jones has proposed. The president also has suggested that NFL owners should simply fire players who protest during the anthem as their way of drawing attention to racial injustice in America.
In a letter Goodell sent to the teams on Tuesday, he said the league wants players to stand during the anthem, but that the NFL hoped to draw attention to players’ concerns by including “such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues.”
But even Goodell’s letter sparked debate, with Trump applauding what he sees as the commissioner’s “demand” that players stand for the anthem and the league’s subsequent response that Goodell has done no such thing.
At issue may be a single word in the NFL’s game operations manual, something that will be a major talking point at the meetings. The manual — which governs all game-related situations involving such things as the way players wear their uniforms, pregame, halftime and postgame regulations and other game-related requirements — says that players “must” appear on the sidelines and “should” stand for the anthem.
The word “should” is now at the heart of the league’s dilemma. There is a possibility the word will be changed to “must” — possibly this week or else after the season — in which case it would be a clear violation of league protocol if players don’t stand for the anthem.
By contrast, the NBA’s guidelines require players to stand for the anthem, something that commissioner Adam Silver stressed during a media appearance late last month. Asked what would happen if a player did not stand for the anthem, Silver said he would address the situation if and when it happens. The NBA regular season begins Tuesday.
“Many of our players have spoken out already about their plan to stand for the anthem,” Silver said. “And I think they understand how divisive an issue it is in our society right now . . . It’s been a rule as long as I’ve been involved with the league, and my expectation is that our players will continue to stand for the anthem.”
NFL owners had shown an extraordinary level of support for players during Week 3 games around the league in the United States — and in England, where Khan stood arm-in-arm with his players for the anthem before a game against the Ravens. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie stood in front of safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has stood for the anthem with a raised right fist alongside teammate Chris Long, who puts a hand across Jenkins’ shoulder. And Jets interim chief executive officers Christopher Johnson has locked arms with his players before the last two home games.
But Trump’s continuing rhetoric against players who protest during the anthem and Jones’ strident statements about his own players’ behavior have further stoked the controversy, and Goodell finds himself at a critical juncture in trying to find common ground on a question that has no easy answers.
When he stands before the owners this week, he’ll need to summon every ounce of diplomacy to forge a solution that’s acceptable to all sides.
But given the deep emotions involved in the debate, it simply may not be possible.