NEW YORK — NFL owners emerged from a series of meetings here Tuesday, including an approximately four-hour gathering with players at the league’s offices, without a requirement that players must stand for the national anthem prior to games.
“It’s not about counting votes” for such a rule change, New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said. “It’s really about acknowledging that this dialogue started today hopefully will have real impact. Any relationship, the foundation has to be based on trust. And I think this is sort of the first brick in that foundation and hopefully it will create a very strong foundation based on trust, communication, openness and understanding.”
Owners met for about three hours at a Manhattan hotel following the earlier session with players at the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league did not seek or receive a commitment from players to stand for the anthem.
“We did not ask for that,” Goodell said. “We spent today talking about the issues that players have been trying to bring attention to, about issues in our community. … I think we all agree there’s nothing more important than trying to give back in our communities and make our communities better. That was the entire focus.”
Jed York, the chief executive officer of the San Francisco 49ers, said the league cannot overreact to criticism by Trump and others of players’ protests.
“We need to be above it,” York said. “We need to be above petty attacks from anybody because racial and socio-economic inequality has existed in this country for too long. 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.”
Earlier Tuesday, players said protests during the anthem would remain an individual choice made by players.
“I think that’s up to each individual,” said the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, one of the players who attended the meeting at the NFL’s offices. Jenkins added later: “Actually very little of the meeting was about the actual anthem. We were really more talking about solutions and how we get the results that we want to get.”
The Indianapolis Colts’ Darius Butler, another player who participated in the meeting, said: “That’s going to come down to the individual. It’s going to be an individual choice.”
This is the owners’ regularly scheduled fall meeting, with the anthem issues and the players’ protests having been pushed to the forefront because of the raging national debate over them fueled by Trump. Some owners appear to be hoping that the spirit of cooperation on players’ community activism could prompt players to voluntarily stand for the anthem.
“I think they [owners] wanted to get a better understanding as to what it is that we are looking for as players and how they could come along and support our voices,” Jenkins said as he stood outside the league’s headquarters, surrounded by other players, early Tuesday afternoon. “And I think we’ll continue to work that out and what that looks like. You can only accomplish so much in a two-hour meeting. But it was good to finally meet face to face, have that real dialogue, get some understanding as to where we all stand and then move on from that.”
Goodell wrote to teams last week that the NFL believes players should stand for the anthem. But NFL officials said going into this meeting that the league had no formal plan or proposal requiring players to stand for the anthem to put before the owners.
One owner, the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, has said he would bench any player on his team who protests during the anthem. Jones attended the owners’ meeting Tuesday but was not present for the earlier meeting with players.
York said the owners should resist forcing players to stand for the anthem even if there are economic repercussions for the league and teams.
“I think that our country is more important than a slight economic impact,” York said. “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. 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.”
After the morning meeting, the league and players’ union issued a joint statement that said: “Today owners and players had a productive meeting focused on how we can work together to promote positive social change and address inequality in our communities. NFL executives and owners joined NFLPA executives and player leaders to review and discuss plans to utilize our platform to promote equality and effectuate positive change. We agreed that these are common issues and pledged to meet again to continue this work together.
“As we said last week, everyone who is part of our NFL community has a tremendous respect for our country, our flag, our anthem and our military. In the best American tradition, we are coming together to find common ground and commit to the hard work required for positive change.”
Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the players’ protest movement last season and now has filed a grievance accusing NFL teams of colluding against him, did not attend the meeting Tuesday morning but was invited, according to Jenkins.
“He was invited, actually,” Jenkins said. “He was invited.”
Kaepernick’s legal representatives issued a statement saying that players wanted Kaepernick present but Kaepernick was not invited by the league.
“This was the first time we’ve gotten a chance to really sit down in front of ownership,” Jenkins said. “We felt like they were receptive. We felt like there was real dialogue and conversation. … I think we all have mutual interests. I think players are part of this league. And so we want to make sure that the quality of product that we put out on the field is great. But at the same time, we have a responsibility to the communities that we live in, the communities that we come from. And so I think we all share that interest and really talked more in collaboration than in ‘us against you’ type of deal.”
A group of players, including Jenkins, has lobbied Goodell for league support of players’ community activism. The league on Monday publicly endorsed bipartisan legislation proposed on Capitol Hill addressing criminal sentencing reform.
“There are a lot of things discussed about how we could move forward,” Jenkins said. “We’re not ready to roll any of that out because it’s all talk right now. We’ll continue to work through that — what we want as players, what the league can do with obviously their platform. We’re the greatest sport in this country. We have the unique ability to bring people together from all walks of life whether it’s in our locker rooms or it’s in our stands. And I think we see that responsibility as players and the league to do that with our country. And it starts with having some tough conversations and moving forward, and I think that’s what we started today.”
Butler attended the Tuesday morning meeting after playing Monday night in Nashville. Other players in attendance included the Washington Redskins’ Josh Norman, the 49ers’ Eric Reid, Jenkins and Eagles teammate Chris Long, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Russell Okung, the Giants’ Mark Herzlich, the New York Jets’ Kelvin Beachum and Demario Davis, free agent wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the Miami Dolphins’ Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas.
Leaders of the NFL Players Association, including executive director DeMaurice Smith, also participated. Eric Winston, the veteran offensive lineman who is the NFLPA’s president, was on hand.
Owners who participated included York, the Giants’ John Mara, the New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft, the Dolphins’ Stephen Ross, the Atlanta Falcons’ Arthur Blank, the Eagles’ Jeffrey Lurie, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Art Rooney II, the Arizona Cardinals’ Michael Bidwill, the Houston Texans’ Robert McNair, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Shad Khan and the Buffalo Bills’ Terry Pegula.
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