TV ratings are sagging. Sponsors and broadcast partners are said to be nervous and want the NFL to find a way to extricate itself from such a heated national political debate. Is this any way to try to run a business and maintain its immense prosperity and popularity?
So what did the owners do about it?
Not a whole lot.
The owners spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Manhattan meeting first with players, then among themselves. They spoke to players about providing support to social-activism endeavors. They reiterated that they believe players should stand for the anthem before games.
But they did not do what Trump and those who agree with Trump’s views about the protests and patriotism wanted the owners to do, which is to require players to stand for the anthem. That produced another round of Twitter activity Wednesday by Trump accusing the NFL of a lack of respect for the country, with owners saying they expect more of the same from the White House going forward.
So the NFL clearly did not put the issue in its rear view mirror. It appears that the owners’ intention is to engage the players on social issues and attempt to satisfy them to the point that practically all players will voluntarily stand for the anthem, while hoping that Trump eventually moves on or his criticism loses its impact. The owners must cross their fingers that the backlash isn’t too great, that sponsors don’t flee and that broadcasters keep their frayed nerves in check.
“There’s no question it’s had an impact on the business,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara said. “But it’s an important social issue and I think sometimes you have to put the interests of your business behind the interests of issues that are more important than that.”
The owners said they ultimately did what they felt was right.
“I think most of the owners, the overwhelming majority of owners, believe that we’re moving in the right direction here by continuing to have dialogue with the players and trying to agree on a program going forward, as opposed to trying to issue some edict that requires them to stand for the anthem,” Mara said.
Said John York, the chief executive officer of the San Francisco 49ers: “This is not a trade-off. From what I’ve read, there are some players that have said that they’re still not considering standing yet. And that never came up in the meeting [between owners and players]. … This has been, ‘How do we take protest to progress?’ How do we make sure that we move these issues forward that matter to the players and I think that matter to the owners?”
Will it work? That remains to be seen. Would the owners have been better off, from a business perspective, surrendering to Trump and mandating that the players stand? There is no way to know for certain, now that the owners have chosen a different path.
“I cannot predict that nor will I predict that,” the Giants’ other co-owner, Steve Tisch, said when asked whether he believes the number of players protesting will decrease in conjunction with the discussion of social issues. “I think going into this week’s game on Thursday and then the rest of the schedule through Sunday, we’ll see.”
Owners said there was no agreement, stated or implied, with the players that league support of social programs would be accompanied by all players standing for the anthem. But players, at least, generally expressed positive reactions to what they heard from owners.
“We feel like the most American thing to do is to use your platform and influence,” Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “And with the stage that we have as NFL players and as a league in general, we feel a real responsibility to our country, to our communities. So we’re working through ways to really have long-lasting, real changes.”
One thing was clear: The owners seemed intent on changing their messaging and trying to steer the public conversation away from the protests.
“We need to take the message away from, ‘Colin Kaepernick took a knee and that’s disrespectful to the flag,’ ” York said. “Our players are protesting to get awareness. That’s why they protested. They have awareness. When you have the president tweeting about you, when you have the vice president making comments, that’s awareness. There’s never been greater awareness for these issues than today when you have literally 32 owners and the NFL commissioner coming together and saying, ‘All right, how do we work on this? How do we move forward?’ ”
According to ESPN, TV viewership of NFL games is down 7.5 percent from last season and 18.7 percent from the 2015 season through Week 6. It is debatable how much of a factor the anthem controversy is in that decline. But owners would love for players to stand, and they would love for the public to be focused on the football being played rather than on what happens before kickoff.
The owners took a gamble by not changing their anthem-related policy, and they left New York with some loose ends still dangling. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said he would bench any player on his team who protests during the anthem. Jones did not participate in the meeting with players Tuesday. He talked at length during the owners’ meeting Wednesday but left without speaking to reporters. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell refused to say what the league would do if a team disciplines a player for refusing to stand for the anthem.
“I don’t know whether it’s tenable or not,” Mara said. “That’s not going to be the policy of my team. Listen, we all want everybody to stand. But as far as I’m concerned, I want the players to stand because they want to stand as opposed to me having to tell them that.”
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