On Pro Football: The N.F.L.’s Veneer of Unity Is Cracking

On Pro Football: The N.F.L.’s Veneer of Unity Is Cracking

On Pro Football
By KEN BELSON

By appearances anyway, the N.F.L. was one big family two weeks ago. After President Trump urged owners to fire players who did not stand for the national anthem, everyone from Commissioner Roger Goodell to the 32 team owners to the players and coaches locked arms, in many cases literally, in defiance and unity.

That unanimity has all but vanished. As the president continues to harangue the league over the anthem, and a number of fans across the country express displeasure with the handful of players who continue to kneel during the anthem, a growing pool of owners are trying to defuse the politically charged issue, even if it means confronting the players they previously sympathized with.

One of the most powerful owners in the league is now speaking openly about benching players who do not stand for the anthem, and Goodell, who said previously that players had a right to voice their opinions, is siding with the owners opposed to letting the players demonstrate. The owners plan to meet next week to establish what to do about the anthem gestures.

“Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Goodell said in a letter sent to owners on Tuesday.

He added that the league cares about the issues the players are trying highlight, including social injustice and police brutality toward African-Americans. But, he said, that “the controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues.”

Goodell’s letter was sent two days after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones – a leader among owners, a supporter of the president and never one to bite his tongue – said in no uncertain terms that he would bench any players who “disrespect the flag.”

“If we are disrespecting the flag, then we won’t play. Period,” Jones told the Dallas Morning News.

On Twitter, the president congratulated Jones for his stance.

Jones may be the most strident owner on this issue, but he is far from alone.

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross, who had backed the players’ right to protest and even set up a nonprofit group last year to foster race relations, appears to be changing his stance. He told The Miami Herald that while many players insist their protests are about raising awareness of racial injustice, the president has “changed that whole paradigm of what protest is” by turning it into a statement on the flag and support of the military.

Put another way, Ross is telling his players that they are hurting their cause by not standing for the anthem.

This about-face should not be shocking.

First and foremost, the owners, particularly those who have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for their teams, want to make money. From their point of view, anything that draws attention from the game, whether it is bullying in the locker room, domestic violence, or sitting or kneeling during the anthem, could put the television networks that broadcast the games and the league’s corporate sponsors in an awkward spot.

“At this moment, Jerry Jones has made a business decision,” said Frank Zaccanelli, a former part owner of the Dallas Mavericks who knows Jones well. “He’s in Dallas, Texas and owns America’s Team. If any business took a 10 to 12 percent business hit, red lights would be going off. If you’ve got 50 percent of your people against you, you are going to have drastic changes. If this continues down this road, you’ll see a deterioration that will be significant.”

The owners, however, also want to avoid a showdown with the players’ union, and even some of their best players. After Jones threw down the gauntlet on Sunday, the N.F.L. Players Association issued a statement defending its members’ right to free expression.

“We should not stifle these discussions and cannot allow our rights to become subservient to the very opinions our Constitution protects,” the union said.

On Tuesday, Jones doubled down on his views during his radio show on KRLD-FM (105.3 The Fan). By threatening to bench players, Jones said his goal was to remove the Cowboys from the debate over whether players should or should not stand for the anthem.

“I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding as to where I want the personnel of the Cowboys to be when we’re at the No. 1 workplace we have, which is the field and the sideline on game day,” Jones said. I want to do everybody a service, as I should in leading the team, and let’s be really clear about what our expectations are.”

The president’s tweets aside, the issue is in some ways taking care of itself. Hundreds of other players who protested two weeks ago, apparently more piqued at a president telling them what to do than the underlying causes the kneeling is supposed to highlight, are now back in line and standing for the anthem. Three players on the Dolphins who had knelt for the anthem in prior weeks, chose on Sunday to stay in the locker room, which was also in defiance of league policy. They were not fined.

That may not be enough for some owners, though, particularly when nearly two dozen players on the San Francisco 49ers continue to kneel during the anthem. It was the former quarterback of that team, Colin Kaepernick, who ignited the round of anthem demonstrations by kneeling during the anthem last season to draw attention, he said, to racial oppression and fatal shootings by the police of African-Americans.

The 49ers chief executive officer, Jed York, has not only stood by his players, but also made a $1 million donation to the team’s community fund to highlight his support for Kaepernick.

The controversy has spilled into the broader football community, with some former players lashing out at current players who refuse to stand for the anthem. Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame player and head coach, said Monday that he did not believe that has seen any oppression in the United States in the last century. “All of a sudden, it’s become a big deal now, about oppression,” he said.

Other former players, including wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., quickly reminded Ditka of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “Great coach, clueless person,” Smith wrote on Twitter.

Current players also took note of Goodell’s letter. Martellus Bennett, a tight end for the Packers, questioned the commissioner’s motives:

To date, the league has not enforced its rule that players must be on the sideline for the anthem and should stand while it is being played, though the wording in the league manual does not make standing a requirement.

Joe Lockhart, a league spokesman, said no fines have been issued for players not on the sidelines but he declined to say if penalties, which could inflame tensions between players and owners and attract the kind of attention the league would rather not have, would be levied going forward.

But, he added, “everyone here is frustrated by the process, and particularly the politics around this.”

The owners, he said, would be meeting next week in New York and – no surprise – will be discussing what steps to take next including, potentially, strengthening the language in its game operations manual.

“There’s a strong feeling at every level,” Lockhart said, “that we ought to be getting back to football.”

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Published at Tue, 10 Oct 2017 20:56:43 +0000

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