The NFL’s debate over players kneeling for the national anthem in protest of racial inequality has taken a surprising turn.
Believe it or not, the players may have the upper hand now that the NFL seems desperate to end the kneeling. The league apparently feels it is hurting or may start hurting their bottom line.
The NFL has a long history of winning its battles with the players, notably locking them out in 2011 to get a deal that favored the owners and kept commissioner Roger Goodell’s power intact.
But the NFL hasn’t seemed to know how to deal with the protests and made things worse Tuesday when Goodell sent a memo to the owners about next week’s meeting and then published the memo to make it public.
The memo was confusing, but the sentence that caught everyone’s attention was, “We believe everyone should stand for the National Anthem.’’
Goodell also said the league “wants to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.’’
The players have repeatedly tried to get the message across that their protest is not disrespecting the flag.
And Goodell said he would unveil a “plan” at the meeting.
He also did not specify what the players are protesting and talked about giving them a “platform’’ to express their concerns.
The memo, though, gave the impression that the NFL planned to cave to Donald Trump, who has been stoking the flames of the controversy with his tweets the last three weeks, and ban the players from kneeling.
The headline on the Huffington Post website was, “NFL kneels to Trump.’’
Maybe that was not the intent of the memo, but it gave that impression.
The NFL’s current policy in their game operations manual is that the players “should’’ stand for the anthem.
Even Trump seemed to think the NFL was caving. He tweeted the NFL was going to demand the player to stop kneeling.
The NFL then had to make an announcement that Trump’s tweet wasn’t accurate.
Goodell on Wednesday then did what he should have done in the first place. He reached out to NFLPA head De Smith, and they issued a joint statement saying that Smith and the union’s player leadership will attend the meeting.
The statement said there has been no change in the policy and there was no mention of Goodell’s plan.
Instead, it said, “The agenda will be a continuation of how to make progress on the important social issues that players have vocalized. … We are coming together to deal with those issues in a civil and constructive way.’’
Goodell then gave an interview to former player Nate Burleson on the NFL Network that had a conciliatory tone. He said there was no policy change and that they plan to have a “very in-depth discussion’’ with the players and owners next week.
Goodell seems to be realizing that if he doesn’t have the players on board with whatever policy they have going forward, it would be a disaster for the league.
The NFLPA could go to court to fight a ban, and even if the league won, the last thing it needs is another long legal fight.
There are limits on workplace free speech – outside the workplace even things like burning the flag are legal – but it is uncertain how the courts would rule on kneeling at a football stadium during the national anthem.
Meanwhile, it is also uncertain what the status of his “plan’’ is that Goodell said would include “such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help promote positive change in our country.’’
This is where the NFLPA has the upper hand. The NFL wants the protests to end. But what is it willing to give the players in return? And what do the players want?
It will be interesting to see how the NFL plays its hand.
I would suggest the players get the NFL to take the lead in dealing with issues of racial inequality and police brutality towards black men.
As Shannon Sharpe pointed out this week, a police officer in Utah was fired for handcuffing a white nurse who was refusing to violate hospital policy and draw blood from a suspect without his consent. Yet police officers are rarely convicted or even fired for shooting unarmed black men.
Maybe the NFL could endow a chair at a major university to study the problem and issues reports. Or start a nationwide database to keep track of police shootings. Or have a program to provide money for better police training in areas that have had police shootings.
Maybe the NFLPA has better ideas, and I would welcome them. But they should demand action by the league, not just some statement.
They should also push back on the idea that Trump should be able to force an employee of a business to do something.
Even conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said that idea “scares the hell out of me’’ and that “no president should have dictatorial power over individual behavior.’’
The NFL should not be intimidated by Trump on this issue.
Limbaugh was not totally blameless. He said that Trump’s motives were “pure.’’ Not really. What Trump is doing is throwing red meat to his base. And he may have a grudge against the NFL because he lost his bid to sue his way into the NFL with the USFL. And former commissioner Pete Rozelle reportedly told him the owners would never approve a bid by him to become an owner.
Trump has also tweeted the owners shouldn’t get tax breaks if the players won’t stand. PR chief Joe Lockhart pointed out they don’t get tax breaks, although communities build them stadiums with tax-free bonds.
The irony is that some of Trump’s policies would help the billionaire NFL owners.
Trump wants to lower the owners’ taxes with items in his tax bill like cutting the top rate, trimming the corporate tax and abolishing the estate tax. These items would put billions into the owners’ pockets.
The meeting Tuesday is likely to be the subject of lively debate, because even the owners don’t agree among themselves. The San Francisco 49ers players have said that owner Jed York has said he won’t force them to kneel.
Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said players wouldn’t play if they don’t stand. Jones met with players Wednesday to try to calm the waters. One report said he was trying to take the heat for the players, although they may not buy that explanation.
And a labor union representing workers in three states, including Texas, filed a brief with the NLRB claiming Jones’ comments violated the law.
Goodell also said the NFL “brings people together,” although his major success has been to unite players and fans against him. He was booed Sunday by Indianapolis fans when he was there to honor Peyton Manning.
It also remains to see if Trump will continue to bash the NFL if some players keep kneeling. His latest ploy was to send Mike Pence to Indianapolis on Sunday to walk out after some 49ers players didn’t stand. All Pence’s cheap stunt did was take away from Manning’s big day.
So Goodell will face some tricky terrain he has to navigate when the meeting is convened Tuesday.
Will Goodell get it right?
His history says we shouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t.
Meanwhile, the player who started it all, Colin Kaepernick, remains unemployed and continues to stay in the background as the controversy he triggered rages.