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NFL, Players Coalition reached a deal, but don’t expect anthem protests to stop

Eric Reid (35) kneels during the national anthem before a game last month. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)
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The NFL and a group of its players reached an agreement Wednesday night for the league and owners of teams to provide funding for social activism endeavors deemed important to players, particularly in African American communities.

But on the first Sunday of NFL games since the NFL reached its agreement with the Players Coalition, a group that includes Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin, it appears likely that protests during the national anthem before games will continue by some players, given divisions in the players’ ranks that were evident last week.

NFL, Players Coalition reach agreement for league to fund players’ social-justice initiatives

“There’s nothing in here about a mandate for players to cease exercising their right to protest,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long wrote last week on Twitter. “I wouldn’t associate myself if there were.”

The agreement could lead to a reduction in the number of players participating in the protests. Jenkins said he no longer would raise his fist during the anthem, as he had been doing. But Jenkins and Boldin acknowledged that the deal does not directly address the protests.

“This initiative between the NFL, owners and Players Coalition does not mandate an end to any player demonstrations,” Jenkins and Boldin said in a written statement posted to each of their Twitter accounts last week. “It[‘]s always been about the issues; strengthening the criminal justice system and fight for racial and social equality.”

Some players appear likely to continue their protests. That group notably is expected to include San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid.

Reid is closely aligned with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the players’ protest movement last season by refusing to stand for the anthem before games to bring attention to racial inequality in the country and police treatment of African Americans. Reid joined Kaepernick in the protests last season and has continued them during a 2017 season in which Kaepernick is out of the league. Kaepernick has not been signed by a team and has filed a grievance accusing teams of collusion.

The Players Coalition suffered defections by some key players just as the social-justice initiative was being finalized

Reid, Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas and Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung announced their withdrawals last week from the Players Coalition.

“I agree with Eric Reid’s assessment [and] also withdrew my involvement with the ‘Players Coalition,’ effective earlier today,” Okung wrote in a statement posted last week to his Twitter account. “This decision making process has not represented the will of many players, myself included. The NFL continues a disingenuous approach to player grievances, refusing to match the urgency of this moment. Their proposal is woefully inadequate. The NFL seems satisfied with an illusion of player agreement when in reality, we are far from establishing a meaningful resolution. Don’t believe the hype. I encourage players to continue to exercise their constitutional rights.”

The protests have drawn sharp criticism by President Trump and some fans, who have accused the protesting players of a lack of patriotism and have faulted the league and owners for failing to require the players to stand for the anthem.

When owners met with players and then conducted their regularly scheduled fall meeting in October in New York, they emerged without enacting a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners said then that they wanted players to stand for the anthem and understood that many fans expected that. But they said most owners were not interested in passing a rule mandating it. Goodell and owners said they were focused on discussions with the players about league support of social justice initiatives that resulted in last week’s agreement.

It was clear at the time that many owners hoped that reaching such an agreement would lead players to voluntarily stand for the anthem. But owners acknowledged throughout the deliberations that there was no explicit or implied agreement for players to stand in exchange for funding.

Owners left their October meeting without a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem

“That didn’t come up at all,” Jed York, the chief executive officer of the 49ers, said at the October owners’ meeting. “There was nobody that disagreed with — obviously people have different opinions on what kneeling means. But nobody talked about, ‘This is a tradeoff.’ There was nothing in the meeting … with the players. There was no conversation about that with the ownership just now. It was really: How do move this to progress? And it’s not trying to trade off to get somebody to stand up. You want to make sure that people feel compelled to do what they feel comfortable with.”

The social activism agreement is subject to final approval by the owners. It would provide about $90 million of funding from the onset of the program through 2023 to causes identified by a joint group of players, owners and league officials.

“This new program will supplement, and not replace, our other key social responsibility efforts, including Salute to Service, cancer awareness, domestic violence/sexual assault and youth programs,” Tod Leiweke, the NFL’s chief operating officer, wrote in a memo sent Friday to teams. “Several clubs, often in conjunction with their players, have established separate funds to promote these efforts in their communities, and we look forward to discussing additional ways of developing local programs involving clubs and their players.”

It is unclear how owners will react if the agreement does not have a significant impact on the protests.

NFL owners could change anthem policy for next season if protests persist all of this season

According to people familiar with the owners’ thinking, some owners would support taking action in the offseason, if the protests last all season, to change the anthem policy for next season and have players remain in the teams’ locker rooms until after the anthem is played. That would be an approach similar to the league’s policy before 2009.

The current anthem policy, distributed in the game operations manual sent by the league to teams, requires players to be on the sideline. It suggests that they stand for the anthem but does not require it. The league has not disciplined teams or players this season when they have opted not to be on the sideline for the anthem.

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