NFL owners expect to discuss the sport’s national anthem policy at the annual league meeting later this month in Florida and some of them regard all options — from leaving the current rules unchanged to enacting a requirement that players stand for the anthem — open for consideration entering those discussions, according to multiple people familiar with the league’s inner workings.
There also is sentiment among some owners for reverting to the NFL’s previous approach of keeping players in the locker rooms before games until after the anthem is played.
A resolution to the matter during the upcoming meeting, scheduled to begin March 25 in Orlando, is not considered likely. Instead, the owners probably will continue their discussions and aim for a potential resolution when they meet in May in Atlanta, according to those with knowledge of the matter, who spoke under the condition of anonymity in recent days because of the sensitivity of the topic. It’s not clear which set of procedures the greatest number of owners favor.
“I don’t think anyone knows at this point how it’s going to come out,” one of those people said. “I’d say everything is on the table.”
One person familiar with the owners’ thinking said there now might be more sentiment for an NBA-style rule requiring players to stand for the anthem than for a provision to keep players in the locker room until after the anthem, as the NFL did before 2009. That person said owners instead might opt to leave the anthem policy unchanged and hope that most players stand and the controversy dissipates, but added that owners would be upset if they take such an approach and the controversy reemerges during the 2018 season.
The issue has remained at the forefront in recent days with reports that the Houston Texans will avoid signing players who participated in protests during the national anthem and that Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross will require his players to stand for the anthem. The Texans denied the report regarding their approach, and Ross said his comments were misunderstood.
“I have no intention of forcing our players to stand during the anthem and I regret that my comments have been misconstrued,” Ross said in a written statement to media outlets. “I’ve shared my opinion with all our players: I’m passionate about the cause of social justice and I feel that kneeling is an ineffective tactic that alienates more people than it enlists.
“I know our players care about the military and law enforcement too because I’ve seen the same players who are fighting for social justice engaging positively with law enforcement and the military. I care passionately that the message of social justice resonates far and wide and I will continue to support and fund efforts for those who fight for equality for all.”
That came after Ross told the New York Daily News: “All of our players will be standing.”
Ross would be the second owner to take such a forceful public stance on the issue. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said during the 2017 season that any Cowboys player who protested during the anthem would be benched.
Ross told the Daily News that he “totally supported” the players’ protests until President Trump turned the public’s attention regarding the protests to issues of patriotism and support of the military.
“When that message changed, and everybody was interpreting it as that was the reason, then I was against kneeling,” Ross told the paper. “I like Donald [Trump]. I don’t support everything that he says. Overall, I think he was trying to make a point, and his message became what kneeling was all about. From that standpoint, that is the way the public is interpreting it. So I think that’s really incumbent upon us to adopt that. That’s how, I think, the country now is interpreting the kneeling issue.”
The Texans denied a Houston Chronicle report that two agents said the Texans would not be interested in any free agent players who had participated in protests.
“A recent report that suggests the Houston Texans would not sign a player who has protested in support of social justice issues is categorically false and without merit,” the team said in a written statement. “The Texans ownership, coaching, personnel and executive staff sign and hire employees based on talent, character and fit within our organization.”
Texans owner Robert McNair created a controversy when he reportedly said during an owners’ meeting last October in New York that owners could not have “the inmates running the prison.”
The owners declined at that October meeting to enact a rule requiring the players to stand during the anthem. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners said then that they wanted players to stand but were not prepared to require them to do so. Instead, they said they were focused on discussions with the players that led to the two sides agreeing last year to a social justice accord by the which the league and teams will provide funding to support players’ community activism.
Owners and players have said there was no agreement, either expressed or implied, that the social justice initiative would lead to all players standing for the anthem. But it also was clear when the deal was struck that many owners hoped the agreement would lead to players deciding voluntarily to stand.
Those are the issues that owners now intend to revisit. The league’s current anthem policy is written into its game operations manual sent by the league to teams, not the rule book, and requires players to be on the sideline during the playing of the anthem. It suggests that players stand but does not require it. The NFL did not discipline players or teams during the 2017 season for instances in which players were not on the sideline for the anthem.
Trump and some fans were sharply critical of players’ protests. The protests began during the 2016 season when quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem to bring attention to racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans. They continued last season with Kaepernick out of the league. He filed a grievance accusing teams of collusion.
Goodell was noncommittal when asked at his annual news conference during Super Bowl week whether the owners will change the anthem policy this offseason to keep players in the locker room until after the anthem is played.