He was reacting to the announcement that players can continue to kneel or sit during the national anthem, a demonstration that was begun by Colin Kaepernick in the summer of 2016 to raise awareness of police brutality and social injustice. Since then, players at stadiums across the country have taken a knee and entire teams have stood with arms linked for the anthem. NFL owners and players met Tuesday in New York to discuss how to take the activism to action, and put the focus back on football.
With President Trump intensifying the spotlight on the demonstrations with tweets, calls for owners to suspend or fire any “son of a bitch” who doesn’t stand and his direction to his vice president to walk out of a recent game in which players knelt, the NFL has grappled with how to find common ground between players’ concerns and fans who have been angered. Owners and players met for the first time Tuesday, seeking to redirect the message, which was never intended as an insult to military members.
There wasn’t much actual movement, though — at least not enough for the president. Jed York, owner of the San Francisco 49ers, was asked about the impact of Trump’s tweets.
“We need to be above it. We need to be above petty attacks from anybody because racial and socio-economic inequality has existed in this country for too long,” York said after the meeting. “We need to get the focus on that and we need to make sure that we make progress there …. You’ve got to block out the noise and you have to go do your job. And that’s what we need to focus on. Are people going to slip? Is somebody going to say something or tweet something? Probably. But we can’t let that detract from the overall goal of progressing these issues and making sure that we are a unified front with the players.”
Owners, many of whom donated to Trump’s campaign and inauguration, realize that there may be an economic impact on the country’s most popular sport.
“I think that our country is more important than a slight economic impact. And I think if we can come together and we can work together in this front, you’re going to bypass any economic downturn that you can possibly see because this issue is more important than economics,” York said. “For the NFL to come out strongly today and have that partnership with our players and start that partnership, I think it shows that. Honestly this is one of the proudest days that I’ve ever felt being a part of the National Football League.”
Although Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has threatened to sideline players who do not stand for the anthem, there appears to be no unanimity among owners. Kaepernick was playing for the San Francisco 49ers when his protest began and owner York has come to support him and 49ers players who kneel.
“I haven’t talked to Colin recently,” York said, “but we’ve had a lot of great discussions. A lot of these discussions started with Colin last year. And I’ll say from my own personal standpoint when Colin originally sat, I was taken aback by it. I mean, I felt like a lot of people that have been negative toward sort of the anthem protests. And then I sat down with Colin and I heard where he was coming from and why he wanted to sit. Then he chose to kneel because he felt like it was much less disrespectful to the flag. And I don’t believe it was disrespectful to the flag, him taking a knee.
“He got that feedback, and I think his message has been lost. And that’s the disappointing thing in this is that his message has been lost about what he’s been fighting for. And I think that’s one of the things that’s really struck me is the more you sit down with our players and hear what they’re about, what they are fighting for, it’s really, really hard to disagree with them. And I think the more that we can get that message out and understand what they’re fighting for and why they’re fighting for it, the easier that it’s gonna be to make progress.”
So, for now, the rule remains as it always has. According to the NFL’s game operations manual: “The national anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the national anthem.
“During the national anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the national anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.”
Although the NFL might have liked to have emerged Tuesday with a solution, that wasn’t a realistic hope according to one owner.
“I think there’s a real sensitivity about public perception. I don’t think 100 percent of the public, 100 percent of the fans are going to be satisfied with any plan that comes out of this meeting and future meetings,” Steve Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants, said. “That’s a very naive impossibility.”
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