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On Monday, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross tied his thought process on protesting players to President Donald Trump. That may end up being the most sizable problem the league now faces in defending itself against the grievance brought by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
On Tuesday afternoon – only hours after Ross’ remarks about both protesting NFL players and Trump became public – the Dolphins owner was added to the deposition list in the Kaepernick grievance. The move by Kaepernick’s lawyers was made in the wake of Ross telling the New York Daily News, “All of our players will be standing [for the national anthem].” But sources told Yahoo Sports it was Ross’ comments about President Trump that are believed to have drawn such a quick reaction from Kaepernick’s lawyers. Specifically: Ross’ admission that his view of player protests was shaped by Trump tying the NFL protests to disrespecting the flag or military.
“[Trump’s] message became what kneeling was all about,” Ross told the Daily News. “From that standpoint, that’s the way the public is interpreting it. So I think that’s really incumbent upon us to adopt that, because that’s how I think the country is now interpreting the kneeling issue.”
That specific statement by Ross could end up having a significant impact in the Kaepernick grievance. Kaepernick’s grievance is attempting to illustrate a connection between his NFL unemployment and comments Trump has made about the league’s handling of both the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and player protesters. In short, Kaepernick’s lawyers are trying to show that Trump impacted the thinking of NFL owners and led them into collusion against the quarterback. And now Ross has admitted that his own thinking was impacted by Trump’s framing of the issue.
“I think initially I totally supported the players in what they were doing, because it’s America – people should be able to really speak about their choices and show them [in] doing that,” Ross told the Daily News. “But I think when you change the message, about, is it support of our country or the military, it’s a different message. When that message changed, and everybody was interpreting it as that was the reason, then I was against the kneeling.”
Asked if he would meet with a player who was planning a protest during the anthem, Ross replied, “I would meet with him, yes. All of our players will be standing.”
That’s a statement Kaepernick’s attorneys are expected to attack in a Ross deposition. For the simple reason that if Trump’s comments can influence the thinking of Ross on anthem kneeling, they could also influence NFL owners to shut Kaepernick out of the league. The possibility of that kind of power over owners is something that Trump has appeared to take pride in previously – notably in a speech in Kentucky on March 20, 2017 – less than three weeks after Kaepernick became an NFL free agent.
“Your San Francisco quarterback, I’m sure nobody ever heard of him,” Trump said to a crowd. “… There was an article today that was reported, that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that? I just saw that.”
Trump followed that with a September speech in Alabama in which he once against drew a connecting line between patriotism, protests and the employment of protesting NFL players.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!” Trump said.
A few weeks later in October, Trump skewered the league’s handling of Kaepernick when he first began kneeling in protest at the beginning of the 2016 season.
“I watched Colin Kaepernick, and I thought it was terrible, and then it got bigger and bigger and started mushrooming, and frankly the NFL should have suspended him for one game, and he would have never done it again,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “They could have then suspended him for two games, and they could have suspended him if he did it a third time, for the season, and you would never have had a problem. But I will tell you, you cannot disrespect our country, our flag, our anthem. You cannot do that.”
Sources said those comments from Trump played a large part in his inclusion in the Kaepernick grievance. And with Ross drawing a line connecting Trump’s words and his own thinking, he’s not the first NFL owner to have ties to Trump illustrated. Trump has tweeted about speaking to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones about the anthem protests. And the day before his speech in Kentucky – when he appeared to delight in his prospective power over owners not signing Kaepernick in free agency – New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft joined Trump on Air Force One for a flight.
But Ross becomes the first NFL owner to tangibly admit that his own thinking on player protests has been impacted by Trump. That will now become a key centerpiece in the Kaepernick grievance. For his part, Ross appeared to walk back part of his comments to the Daily News, putting out a statement Tuesday that he was misunderstood.
“I have no intention of forcing our players to stand during the anthem and I regret that my comments have been misconstrued,” Ross said in a statement. “I’ve shared my opinion with all our players: I’m passionate about the cause of social justice and I feel that kneeling is an ineffective tactic that alienates more people than it enlists. I know our players care about the military and law enforcement too because I’ve seen the same players who are fighting for social justice engaging positively with law enforcement and the military. I care passionately that the message of social justice resonates far and wide and I will continue to support and fund efforts for those who fight for equality for all.”
Depositions for the Kaepernick grievance are slated to begin this month.
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