NFL threw money at anthem problem, but new policy will lead to more contempt from players

What the NFL did on Wednesday with the announcement of its new national anthem policy was the equivalent of what your mom did with you when you were sick as a kid, and forced you to down that miserable purple cough syrup:

Open your mouth and say, “Ahh!”

Unlike that cough syrup, which tasted horrific going down but ultimately eased your cough (somewhat), there will be no relief today, next week or next season for the players the policy is aimed at silencing, whose insistence on kneeling or protesting during the anthem — in hopes of bringing widespread awareness to police brutality and social injustice against minorities — has led to the most divisive issue the NFL has encountered in years.

Roger Goodell announced a policy change that punishes players who take a knee during the national anthem on gameday. (AP)
Roger Goodell announced a policy change that punishes players who take a knee during the national anthem on gameday. (AP)

Want proof? Check out the NFL Players Association’s reaction to the announcement.

“The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new ‘policy,’” the NFLPA said in a statement. “NFL players have shown their patriotism through their military activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.

“The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the chairman of the NFL’s management council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our league. Our union will review the new ‘policy’ and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”

Whoo, boy. Owners in the league like to say that they consider the players as partners in the prolific joint money-making venture known as the NFL, but if you believe the NFLPA, there was little partnership in this, no joint resolution.

No, sir. In their eyes, this was the owners, by and large, working toward the eradication of a problem that has not only affected the perception of their league, but also threatened their bottom lines. The sight of players kneeling or protesting during the anthem is unsightly to a vocal subset of Americans, many of whom are unsympathetic to the causes these players are protesting, and NFL owners are nothing if not vigilant about protecting the shield and their ability to continue raking in huge sums of cash at all costs.

The NFL’s version of a “compromise” was reached. Players will not be forced to appear on the field during the anthem — they can wait in the locker room until its conclusion. But if they appear during the anthem, they’d better stand and be “respectful,” or else the team will be fined, and the team can then discipline the player individually through whatever recourse it sees fit.

It’s hardly a perfect solution. The NFL is opening up itself to a scenario where teams are overtly punishing players for nonviolently protesting police brutality and social injustice, which will draw nearly as much criticism from some corners as praise.

Colin Kaepernick (R) and Eric Reid have each filed grievances against the NFL, accusing the league of blackballing them. (AP)
Colin Kaepernick (R) and Eric Reid have each filed grievances against the NFL, accusing the league of blackballing them. (AP)

It could also lead to quiet contempt among players, who see that Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid remain unsigned and could be scared of expressing their views too much, lest they end up unemployed like those two.

“I think there needs to be ongoing dialogue with our players about it,” Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, one of a handful of owners on the league’s social justice committee, told Yahoo Sports. “We didn’t have many players in the whole league that really, at the end of the year, were protesting. It was not as big an issue for the whole of the players as some on the outside thought it was.”

Rooney runs one of the league’s iconic franchises, one that has a long history of being a champion for progressive causes. Any reasonable person would agree that the fact he thinks the league crossed all its “T’s” and dotted its “I’s” matters, and is worth considering, especially since we’re beginning to digest and understand the impact of this policy.

However, owners like Rooney must be very careful not to equate compliance with satisfaction. Just because a player doesn’t protest doesn’t mean he feels the cause the players are kneeling for is unjust; it simply means he’s not about to risk ticking off the team he plays for, or the NFL, in general. I’ve encountered many players like that during my five-plus years covering the league, who agree with the causes but need the money they make too badly to risk angering their bosses.

But others, like Kaepernick and Reid, felt so strongly about the causes they were kneeling for that they were willing to risk it all, and at least some owners appear to be aware that their decision Wednesday will cause more consternation among its players. How else do you construe the fact that the vote, despite being hailed as “unanimous,” didn’t receive a “yes” vote from all 32 teams?

At least one team, San Francisco, abstained from voting on the rule, and when I directly asked 49ers owner Jed York whether his decision to abstain was, at least in part, due to his concern over whether players believed they had been adequately consulted during this process, York looked me right in the face and nodded.

“I would say that’s probably the biggest reason for my abstention,” York said. “Again, I want to work with my team to make sure that everything that we do is about promoting the right types of social justice reform and getting to a better America.”

It’s tempting to be cynical about York’s stance and dismiss it as posturing. His organization released Kaepernick two years ago, after all, and Kaepernick remains unsigned, and his collusion case against the NFL is ongoing. But York’s revelation confirms some concern about the level of input the league’s players had on this new policy, even though Rooney was comfortable with the level of interaction with the Players Coalition, which recently finalized a social justice partnership with the NFL that will dedicate close to $90 million for programs dedicated to fighting social inequality.

“I think the Players Association had ample opportunity to participate in this if they had wanted to,” Rooney said. “I was in meetings where they were in the room, in terms of some of our meetings with the Players Coalition, so it’s not as though they never participated in some of those meetings.

“There were a lot of pieces to this, and a lot of voices were heard as it relates to coaches, fans, sponsors, probably more than any single issue I can remember being involved with in my career in the league. I think we came up with something that tried to respect everybody’s point of view as best we can. It’s not possible to keep everybody happy, but I think it was an attempt to respect everybody’s point of view and provide some clarity to where we are.”

To the latter, they certainly did that. Although there is plenty left to discover — including what each team considers to be disrespectful of the anthem, which will be the likely yardstick to governing punishment (for instance, does a raised fist count as disrespect?) — this much is clear: the NFL has been, and will always be, preoccupied with protecting the shield, even when an argument about the restriction of player rights hangs in the balance.

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