NEW YORK — The NFL was really feeling itself at this week’s fall meetings in lower Manhattan. Scoring is through the roof! Games are historically close! Ratings are up! Concussions are down! It was impossible to chat up a league official without being reminded of how swell things are going, and ain’t it grand?
As several other reporters on the ground have noted, this was a marked contrast from last year’s gathering, when the league and the players were at odds over the protests during the national anthem, and the tension was palpable. The anthem issue was again notable this year, but this time because of its absence.
The league had enacted an anthem policy back in May, only to freeze it a little less than two months later. By all indications, the NFL is now content to let the issue work itself out, without any specter of discipline—a position that should have been the obvious one at the time it cooked up the policy in the first place. To those in the league and those closely associated with it, this about-face was an act of magnanimity, the product of a genteel consensus between management and labor. “Ongoing discussions,” one league associate told me with a wry smile, his way of correcting me when I said the league was allowing its unilaterally imposed policy to die without ever having implemented it. Commissioner Roger Goodell used the phrase “respect and dialogue” to characterize the dynamic between the league and the players on the topic. I could almost swear he exited the podium to the strains of “Kumbaya.”
Three times, Goodell mentioned the “listen and learn” tours he and some owners had done with some players. “We are all trying to work together to address those issues,” he said. What “those issues” were went unmentioned. Goodell never alluded to what had galvanized the players to protest—police brutality, mass incarceration, systemic racial injustice—which is in keeping with his silence when the President of the United States was using the league and its players as racialized props in his never-ending campaign of resentment.
“We are trying to help players and our clubs address the issues in the communities that they are concerned about,” Goodell said. And thus did the NFL finish the job of sanitizing the player protests into something else it could market to fans.
The notion that the league “resolved” its “anthem crisis” through some sort of tactful negotiating process, as Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer framed it, ignores the reality of what brought the two sides to the table, and what resulted from those talks. When, during last year’s fall meetings, some owners and players had an extraordinary sit-down uptown at league headquarters, both parties tried to spin it as a positive and productive session. But a recording of that meeting that was later leaked to the New York Times revealed that the talks were much more fraught than either side had been letting on. One month after the Times’ big scoop, the league approved an anthem policy with zero input from the players. It didn’t go over well.
Why the league did this remains a mystery. The players had succeeded in getting the wider public to understand why they were protesting (even if a significant portion of that public will never view the players’ cause as legitimate). But by the end of last season, which finished with an exciting, futuristic Super Bowl, fewer than 10 total players—a fraction of a percent—were still protesting. The league essentially re-ignited a controversy that had fizzled out, ensuring that fans and media would be keeping tabs on which players might still demonstrate this season. But the league also pissed off the players. And on July 10, the NFLPA filed a grievance, a defensive maneuver that likewise stood to keep the issue in the headlines, where it would likely be grist for further outrage.
By July 19, the Dolphins’ potential plans for possible discipline—which included suspensions—leaked to the Associated Press. And just one day after that, the league and the NFLPA issued a joint statement that said the policy would be frozen, pending further discussions. It’s obvious what caused the league to stand down—they had handed the players something around which to unite and to raise hell—but when I put the question to a handful of owners and executives this week, they all talked their way around it, even when offered the chance to speak on background or without attribution.
“Why would the league agree to freeze the policy just two months after enacting it?” I asked several people. Nearly everyone responded with some variation of the league’s joint commitment to working with its players. But one AFC owner told me there never was anything close to a true consensus among ownership for the policy itself, which had been approved with the assent of all but two owners (the 49ers’ Jed York and the Raiders’ Mark Davis abstained), yet without any formal vote, according to ESPN’s Seth Wickersham. In addition, this owner said, the policy’s presence on the agenda had only become known to some owners just days before the May meeting, and that it came as a surprise to this AFC owner.
But who pushed for it?
“I don’t know,” the owner told me. “People have been trying to avoid putting their fingerprints on it.” The same was true for whoever pulled the trigger on freezing the policy, with York telling me he wasn’t privy to those discussions.
Breer reported that the last formal talks between the league and the union were on Aug. 27, and that at that point the two sides decided to proceed without enforcing the policy. But on Sept. 5—one day before the start of the regular season—the Washington Post’s Mark Maske reported that “moderate owners” were still willing to waive any punishments in exchange for an endorsement from the NFLPA that all players should stand for the anthem. In other words, at least right up until the eve of the season, the league was bargaining for a pound of flesh in exchange for dropping the policy. It’s my understanding that the union balked at this. Then the season began, and very few players—Albert Wilson and Kenny Stills of the Dolphins, Marshawn Lynch of the Raiders, Michael Bennett of the Eagles, Eric Reid of the Panthers—have continued to demonstrate. Like a fart in the wind, Donald Trump has tweeted about it just once, and not at all since the morning of the first Sunday of games.
The anthem barely came up during this week’s meetings—just “in passing” on Tuesday as part of a broader discussion about the league’s finances, according to an AFC team executive. This executive told me the league’s effort to try to quell the protests was always a business consideration, rather than a “moral” one (the exec’s word, not mine). Breer reported that the league and the NFLPA had data that indicated it was best for the league to simply ignore Trump’s tantrums. Business has been pretty good ever since. “We’re just kind of pedaling forward and moving on,” an NFC team executive told me. “The issue is behind us,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told me. The flag, the military, patriotism? That stuff was always about brand positioning anyway. Show some respect.
The takeaway here isn’t that the NFL waved in the direction of a noble gesture by bagging a policy that was never necessary and that never had the cooperation of the players to begin with. I can’t help but think back to last fall’s league meetings, when Giants owner John Mara—as representative of the league’s old guard as anyone—admitted the protests were affecting his understanding of where the players were coming from. “I think when [the anthem protests] first happened I think I probably had a little more of a hard-line position,” Mara said then. “But since I’ve spoken to players and heard what they’ve had to say and tried to understand what it is that they’re protesting, I think my position has, to be honest, evolved a little bit.”
Collective action typically hasn’t been a position of strength for NFL players. But they got the NFL to blink on this one. Perhaps they’re learning.