Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones backed the NFL into a corner.
Now league commissioner Roger Goodell is moving to solve the problem permanently.
After weeks of being consumed by a maelstrom of politics and controversy, league owners will meet next week to rule – maybe once and for all – what freedoms can or can’t be expressed during the playing of the national anthem on NFL game days.
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said Tuesday that owners will discuss anthem rules in the league’s fall meetings in New York next week, all in hopes of getting “back to football” and bringing some closure to a political Pandora’s box that has devoured headlines in the 2017 season.
“They will have a chance to – all of them – discuss this issue, to look at the policy and look at ideas if there is a need to change the policies,” Lockhart said. “I fully expect this to be front and center on the agenda.”
In a memo circulated among all 32 teams, Goodell expressed a strong desire to move past the controversy. He also advocated that players stand during the anthem, saying, “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”
This all comes in the wake of Trump continuing to bang the drum about protests in the NFL, and the staged walkout at an Indianapolis Colts game by Vice President Mike Pence this past weekend. But it was Jones who provided the latest flashpoint in the fire, stating on Sunday night that his players would “not play” if they “disrespected” the flag during the pregame anthem.
“If there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” Jones said Sunday night. “OK? Understand? If we are disrespecting the flag, then we won’t play. Period. … There is no room here – if it comes between looking non-supportive of our players and of each other or creating the impression that you’re disrespecting the flag, we will be non-supportive of each other. We will not disrespect the flag.”
During his comments, Jones also cited a portion of the NFL’s game operations manual, which is considered the “bible” by teams when it comes to game day procedures. Specifically, a line in the manual that dictates players “should” stand during the anthem. That word has raised a debate over whether “should” means “must,” and thus becomes a directive that can result in discipline if broken.
The manual states, “During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking.”
Lockhart declined to say whether the league’s stance on anthem protests is aligned with Trump and Jones, but he indicated that as the rule is written, the NFL believes there is latitude for some retribution for protests during the playing of the anthem amid the display of the American flag.
“The manual is clear when it says the players should stand for the anthem,” Lockhart said. “That manual governs the issues around the anthem for the entire league – for the 32 clubs. To date, there hasn’t been discipline for those who have chosen not to stand.”
Despite this assertion, Lockhart would not definitively declare that NFL teams can punish players for pregame protests. Instead, he pointed to the owners’ meetings in New York, scheduled for Oct. 17-18, and the hope that resounding clarity will be reached on an issue that has defined this season.
“I think everyone at this point is frustrated by this situation,” Lockhart said. “The commissioner and the owners do want the players to stand. The commissioner has said that from the beginning, over the last year. I think owners have said that. Because we think it’s an important part of the game. I think the players are frustrated, because the issues that they’re trying to raise awareness about and try to enact progress have been distorted in a game of political football.
“I think each and every one of [the players] have made clear that they are patriotic. They do have respect for the flag. But they have important issues here and they’re trying to raise them. And I think our fans are frustrated. Football is traditionally a unifying event – a unifying thing for people – and it’s an escape from the divisive politics that face this country right now. I think there’s a strong feeling across the league at every level that we ought to get back to football.”
When the meetings convene, there will be no shortage of questions the owners will have to dissect. Among them: Is it legal to prohibit NFL players to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem; will the player’s union seek legal recourse if it believes players’ workplace freedoms are being violated; and should the league revert to the pre-2009 game day routine of keeping teams in the locker room during the anthem and flag presentation.
As Lockhart seemed to suggest on Tuesday with the NFL’s current lack of definitive answers, all of those questions may be impossible to navigate without furthering the current public relations spiral. But the league is in its toughest position to date – spotlighted by Trump and placed at a crossroads by Jerry Jones.
This all leaves Goodell and his bosses to meet in New York in an attempt to find a way out.
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