Photo:Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Leaving a hotel in Manhattan Wednesday afternoon, San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York told me that he believes that “ultimately, social justice is not a political issue.” Meaning, contextually, that it’s not a partisan political issue, from his perspective. Or shouldn’t be, at least.

He said it as flatly as you or I would say the sky is blue. And the comment itself, that equality is something that all people, no matter their politics, should strive for, is hardly remarkable. But in the ecosystem of the NFL and its owners, it makes York a notable outlier, even if he couldn’t bring himself to mention things like “police brutality” or “institutional racism.”

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(The buzzwords in the last month have been along the lines of “unity” and “divisiveness.” Bears chairman George McCaskey said “this divisive political situation has unified our franchise”; Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said he has “seen the sport’s ability to bring people of all backgrounds together”; Jerry Jones, perversely to his credit, merely told his players they’ll be benched if they protest.)

York was responding to a question I’d asked about the potential advantages of his team playing in an overwhelmingly liberal market. I figured he might be in a better position to talk about the subject du jour—NFL players’ specific goals in protest, and how team owners and the leagues can help support them in their causes—than most of his league contemporaries because the market his team plays in is overwhelmingly liberal, and because he’s mostly exempt from pressure to (re-)sign Colin Kaepernick this season.

“I think you have people that are on both sides of this in any market,” he said, and while that’s technically true, it’s a bit disingenuous and far too charitable. Protests against police brutality, racial inequality in policing, and in support of criminal justice reform from NFL players carries significantly less fiscal and monetary risk for a team in the Bay Area. A utopia it is not, but it is not North Texas. It’s not Tampa Bay. It’s not Tennessee.


The owners had been in a meeting with Roger Goodell for something like six hours by this point. The day before, York had joined a handful of owners and the commissioner at the NFL league office to meet with NFLPA representatives and a few other players, including 49ers safety Eric Reid, who has been more vocal about the causes of the anthem protests than any other player, to talk about how to find common ground between the interests of the owners and the goals of the players.

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It was a long couple of days, and York, who happily spoke to reporters for nearly 30 minutes Tuesday night in the hotel lobby, said (three times) that the group was succeeding in going from “protest to progress”—corny and convenient.

“When Colin originally sat, I was taken aback by it,” York said. “I felt like a lot of people who have been negative toward the anthem protest, then I sat down with Colin and I heard where he was coming from ... I think his message has been lost, and that’s the disappointing thing in this. His message has been lost in what he’s fighting for, and I think that’s one of the things that really struck me is, the more you sit down with our players and hear what they’re about and what they’re fighting for, it’s really, really hard to disagree with them.”

York said that other owners have only been grappling with this issue for a month or so, since President Trump’s inflammatory comments galvanized players—and team ownership—to begin engaging with the idea en masse. It’s an explanation that might be too generous: Where have these owners been during the last 15 or so months that players have been sitting or kneeling during the anthem? If Trump did anything, it made it no longer financially viable for owners—who seem to care about little beyond their bottom lines—to keep ignoring the message.

Goodell made it clear Wednesday that the league views players who continue to kneel as holdouts who can be won over by supporting them in community- and policy-based initiatives that they can all agree on, across the aisle. If the players get what they want, then they’ll no longer need to take a knee, or something.

The meetings resulted in two days of mixed messages—if there was any message at all. Mostly, it seemed like all parties had agreed to cool down a little bit and do nothing, for now. The league’s most vocal owners, especially on this issue, found ways to avoid talking to the press altogether, or for no more than a couple minutes to reporters who had to chase them across the lobby. Jerry Jones gave a polite look at a protestor on Tuesday morning and escaped into an employee-only hallway later that night, though he spoke for a “long time” during the meeting Wednesday, according to John Mara. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson didn’t even show up.

In contrast to the Joneses and the Maras of the ownership cadre, York is more reserved. He made a load of mistakes popping off on Twitter a few years ago, learned his lesson on opening up too much, and, well, hasn’t had a whole lot of great news to share with the public about his team since then. So his decision to hold court Tuesday night, and to demonstrate a relative fluency in the lexicon of what he called “social, socioeconomic, and racial issues” stood out to me and to many of the reporters with phones and recorders in his face. I found myself genuinely believing that he had listened to his players’ concerns—actually listened—and was more comfortable with the issue than his other pals in the room. I hope he’s not just telling me what I want to hear

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After 20 minutes in the press scrum, York reiterated what is obvious to any intellectually self-honest person at this point in the cycle: “Our players are not trying to be disrespectful to the flag or disrespectful to the country, they’re trying to bring awareness to issues that come to their communities that most people that look like me don’t understand.” In the NFL ownership ecosystem, that’s a radical statement. And that speaks volumes about this league.