Some within the NFL are eager to move on from the sport’s very public feud with President Trump and return the focus to football this weekend.
Good luck with that. It won’t be nearly as easily done as said.
“I’m one that really believes in standing for the flag,” Denver Broncos executive and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway said in a statement released earlier this week. “I understand the players and the way they felt from the comments that were made earlier in the week. They felt they had to go down and kneel and that’s up to them. Hopefully as we go forward we can start concentrating on football a little bit more. Take the politics out of football. But I think that last week was a good show of unity by the NFL and hopefully this week we can move forward.”
Elway is calling for separating politics and football after writing a letter earlier this year on Broncos stationery to the Senate Judiciary Committee recommending the approval of Neil M. Gorsuch, then a nominee to the Supreme Court. Elway is not alone in expressing those sentiments.
“That’s for you political beatniks to ponder,” Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said at his news conference Wednesday. “We’re a football group, man. You’re asking us about middle ground. You’re asking us about right or left. We’re a football group. That’s what you guys don’t understand. We don’t care, largely professionally speaking. We have personal opinions, yes. Professionally? We’re about to kick a ball off.”
The Steelers decided not to be on their sideline for the anthem last Sunday in Chicago, only to have offensive tackle and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villaneuva photographed at the front of a tunnel leading to the field, standing alone with his right hand over his heart. The Steelers tried to explain that their decision was not politically motivated. But do they really believe that their approach — two days after Trump used crass language in a speech at a campaign rally in Alabama to urge owners to fire any NFL player who protests by refusing to stand for the anthem — could be separated from politics?
Trump shows no inclination to let this go anytime soon. As he left the White House on Wednesday afternoon for a trip to Indianapolis to talk about tax reform, he stopped on the way to Marine One to answer questions from reporters, including on the NFL.
“The NFL is in a box, in a really bad box,” Trump said, according to The Post’s David Nakamura. “Look’s what happening with ratings. Frankly, the only thing doing well in the NFL is the pregame because everyone wants to see what’s going on. The NFL is in a very bad box. You can’t have people disrespecting the national anthem. The NFL has to change or their business is going to go to hell. … We have to respect the national anthem and respect our country. They are not respecting their country.”
In an interview with “Fox & Friends” that aired Thursday morning, Trump accused NFL owners of being “afraid of their players” and called that “disgraceful.”
That prompted a reply from the NFL, with spokesman Joe Lockhart saying of those latest comments: “They’re not accurate. They’re not factual.”
There are some members of NFL teams’ front offices who believe that Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league office erred by taking on Trump; they are convinced that the controversy would have dissipated more quickly and with less potential damage to the NFL if Goodell and the league had not responded to Trump’s original remarks. That is highly questionable. The story was immense before the NFL ever said anything. The players certainly were not going to refrain from responding.
Either way, this is an immense controversy that has gone far beyond sports and has dominated the national conversation this week. The NFL must decide where to go from here. Before Thursday night’s game in Green Bay, Packers players linked arms for the anthem. Chicago Bears players did the same on their sideline. The Packers had invited fans at Lambeau Field to link their arms, although there were reports that most in the stands did not do so.
Owners were in New York this week for previously scheduled committee meetings and discussed the issue. On Tuesday night, Goodell met with a group of owners and players on the matter.
One of the attendees, New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty, told reporters Thursday it was about “just understanding from both sides. I’m not going to get into details about it. But I thought it was just good for the players in the room to try to pass that on. But it wasn’t like 32 teams and a ton of players. It wasn’t that. It was just something that was kind of thrown together very quickly and try to understand.”
Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, said earlier Thursday that some teams are looking at what the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals did Monday night as a possible model of how to handle this going forward. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined arms with his team’s players and coaches and took a knee before the anthem, then stood for the anthem.
But Lockhart also said: “There is no leaguewide directive how to do this.”
Some players have expressed concern that the original message in quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest, one that was about racial inequality in the U.S., has been lost amid Trump making the national debate about patriotism and the NFL owners responding by participating in shows of unity with players. Lockhart said that concern is “very much part of the conversation” that is ongoing between the league, owners and players. But that raises the question: Would a protest by players really remain a protest if it is league-sanctioned?
Lockhart also said of the public’s reaction: “We understand that there’s anger out there. …We get that. … We understand that sponsors have concerns.”
It remains to be seen what other teams and players will do at this weekend’s games. There is no way of knowing where all this goes from here. But it seems clear that the goal of separating football and politics probably is not within immediate reach.
“Do we want to get back to focusing primarily on football?” Lockhart said. “You bet we do.”
Around the League
Elliott case. … About those good feelings between NFL players and owners: They could end soon, with the Ezekiel Elliott case back in court Monday. A federal appeals court is to hear oral arguments on the NFL’s request for an emergency stay of the injunction that is keeping Elliott’s six-game suspension on hold. Elliott is ensured of playing Sunday for the Cowboys against the Los Angeles Rams. But nothing is guaranteed after that, given that the NFL has left open the possibility of enforcing Elliott’s suspension in a given week even if the appeals court lifts the injunction late in that week. Remember when the courtroom tussle between the NFL and the NFL Players Association over the Elliott suspension was the biggest off-field story in the sport?
Giants and Beckham. … If it had been a normal NFL Sunday followed by a normal NFL week, the behavior by wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. during the New York Giants’ loss at Philadelphia would have been the major topic of discussion. Beckham played brilliantly, with two fourth-quarter touchdown catches. But he followed one of them by being penalized for a celebration in which he crawled along the turf like a dog, then lifted his leg. Giants co-owner John Mara expressed his displeasure publicly during the week. Some observers are beginning to question whether the Giants should give Beckham the sort of mammoth long-term contract that his talent says he deserves. ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported that Beckham’s dog celebration came in response to Trump’s SOB comment about NFL players. That would put things in a different context. Whether the Giants are persuaded by that remains to be seen.
Trubisky time. … It clearly is time for the Bears to turn to prized rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. It’s not all Mike Glennon’s fault, for sure. But Thursday night’s 35-14 loss at Green Bay was dreadful, and there’s no reason not to get the Trubisky era underway.
Bravo, Deshaun Watson. The rookie quarterback for the Houston Texans giving his first NFL game check to three workers in the team’s cafeteria who’d suffered major losses from the flooding in Houston was classy and touching. What more can you say? …
The Texans’ J.J. Watt has gone four straight games without a sack, dating to last season. He has never gone five straight games without a sack, as pointed out by Gil Brandt. …
Since his opening-night clunker of a performance, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has won two straight AFC offensive player of the week awards. At his current pace, Brady would throw for 5,824 yards and 43 touchdowns this season. He’s yet to throw an interception. In his 15 regular season games since the start of last season, Brady has 36 touchdown passes and two interceptions. …
Darren Sproles is 34. His season is over after he suffered a broken arm and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the same play during the Eagles’ victory over the Giants. Is that it for Sproles’s career? Perhaps. One would hope that he would be able to leave the sport on his terms. But that is the case for a precious few players. …
Is Alex Smith an MVP candidate? He sure is.
Games to Watch
Steelers at Ravens … They’re both coming off losses but the winner still becomes the early favorite in the AFC North.
Rams at Cowboys … The Rams are surprisingly competent under their first-year coach, Sean McVay, and this has become a far more interesting game than it once appeared to be.
Lions at Vikings … The greatness of Case Keenum is put to the test.
Raiders at Broncos … The winner emerges as the primary challenger, at least for now, to the Chiefs in the AFC West.
Redskins at Chiefs … The Redskins were nearly perfect in beating the Raiders on Sunday night but now must go on the road, in a tough place to play, to face what has been the NFL’s best team.
Games to Miss
Bengals at Browns … It’s the NFL’s state championship game of Ohio. Hopefully that means no one outside the state has to pay attention.
Saints at Dolphins … Is Jay Cutler back to being Jay Cutler?
49ers at Cardinals … The Niners gave a very entertaining performance against the Rams. That can’t happen again, can it?