ORLANDO — NFL owners are not scheduled to vote this week on possible changes to the league’s national anthem policy, but the issue remains prominent for those at the league’s annual meeting. The New York Giants’ John Mara said Sunday that owners must resolve the matter by May, while the Houston Texans’ Robert McNair said that NFL playing fields are “not the place for political statements” and teams must show angry fans that they “respect our flag and respect our country.”
As owners gathered at an Orlando resort for the meeting that runs through Wednesday, McNair said: “I think we all need to respect our flag and respect our country. I think we’ll figure out a way to make sure that we do that. We’ll have discussions about it.”
The owners are to discuss the NFL’s anthem policy this week but do not plan to vote on potential changes. A resolution could come at the owners’ next scheduled meeting in May in Atlanta, Mara said.
“I don’t expect any specific resolution to come out of this meeting on the anthem policy,” Mara said. “But I certainly think it will be discussed and some resolution hopefully will come out of the May meeting. I don’t think we can wait longer than that.”
It’s not clear if the owners will keep the policy as is or modify it, either by requiring players to stand for the national anthem before games or by leaving players in the locker rooms until after the anthem is played.
“I don’t know if it’ll be a vote or just a new policy coming out,” Mara said Sunday. “I think we can’t go much beyond the May meeting before coming up with some sort of resolution to that.”
The current policy, outlined in the NFL’s game operations manual that is sent to teams, says that players are required to be on the sideline for the anthem. It says that players should stand for the anthem but does not require it.
“We have a policy manual now that says they must be on the sideline and they should stand and hold the helmet in their left hand,” McNair said. “I interpret that to mean that’s what they should be doing.”
McNair was asked whether he believes the wording that players “should” stand for the anthem ought to be changed by the owners to say they “must” stand for the anthem.
“The union argues well, if you really meant it, you’d say must,” he said.
McNair also said on that topic: “I don’t know. I don’t know that that is what needs to be changed. We’re going to deal with it in such a way, I think, that people will understand that we want everybody to respect our country, respect our flag. And our playing fields, that’s not the place for political statements. That’s not the place for religious statements. That’s the place for football. And that’s what I think we need to be doing.”
Christopher Johnson, the chairman and chief executive officer of the New York Jets, expressed a different view, telling reporters that the league should leave its anthem policy unchanged.
“I can’t speak to how other people run their teams, but I just think that trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea,” Johnson said, according to multiple accounts of the interview session.
President Trump and some fans were sharply critical of the NFL last season for protests by players during the national anthem.
“It’s a matter of concern,” McNair said. “We’ve tried to deal with it. We’ve talked to players and we hear what they said. I can just say in Houston we’ve been doing a number of things and we’ll continue doing a number of things in the community. That didn’t influence us. We were doing it before the anthem issue even came up. But there are fans that are upset about it. Fans are our customers.
“As I’ve said, you could replace all the owners and the league would go on. You could replace all the players and the league would go on. The quality of play wouldn’t be as good. But you can’t replace the fans. If you don’t have the fans, you’re dead. So we’ve got to pay attention to them and make sure that they know we respect the flag. We respect our service people. We love our country. I mean, this is where we’ve all had our opportunity.”
The protests by some players continued last season with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of the league. Kaepernick began the protest movement during the 2016 season by refusing to stand for the anthem before games to bring attention to racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans. Kaepernick was not signed after opting out of his contract with the 49ers and filed a grievance accusing teams of collusion.
McNair sparked an uproar last season when he reportedly said at an owners’ meeting in October in New York that owners “can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
Owners decided at that meeting not to enact a requirement that players stand for the anthem. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and some owners said then that they wanted players to stand for the anthem. But they were not prepared, they said then, to require it. Instead, they said they were focused on discussions with the players that led to a social justice initiative by which teams and the league will contribute to players’ community activism.
McNair mentioned that initiative Sunday.
“I think this is really something that you almost have to deal with on a local level because trying to do a national program to do some of the things that the players want — you don’t accomplish it on a national level, criminal law reform,” McNair said. “That’s a state law thing, primarily. Most of these things are more local. That’s where they need to be dealt with.”
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