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NFL owners could leave national anthem policy to individual teams

Former 49ers Eric Reid, left, and Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem before a game in 2016. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

NFL owners are considering a compromise solution to the sport’s national anthem policy that would make it a team-by-team decision whether to require players to stand for the anthem prior to games, according to several people familiar with the league’s inner workings.

Those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, cautioned that no final determination has been made as the owners prepare to take up the anthem issue when they gather this month in Atlanta at their regularly scheduled spring meeting.

Several other possibilities remain, from leaving the anthem policy unchanged to forging a different compromise that would result in a leaguewide policy by which players would be required to stand for the anthem if they’re on the sideline but would be given the option to remain in the locker room. Or the NFL could revert to its pre-2009 approach of keeping all players in the locker room until after the anthem is played.

Texans owner Bob McNair said in March that NFL playing fields aren’t the place for political statements

While some owners would like to require all players to stand for the anthem, others remain opposed to such a mandate and there appears to be insufficient support to make that a leaguewide policy, according to those with knowledge of the owners’ thinking. Making it a team-by-team decision would allow some owners to impose a requirement that players stand for the anthem while most others would be likely to continue to allow players to make their own choices, those people said.

“My guess is they will leave it up to the teams,” a high-ranking official with one NFL franchise said.

Others expressed a similar view in recent days, saying that is the solution that could satisfy owners on both sides of the issue.

The current policy, included in the game operations manual sent by the league to teams, says players must be on the sideline for the anthem. It recommends but does not require that players stand for the anthem.

Some owners have said or hinted that they want to require players to stand for the anthem. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last season that he would bench any Cowboys player who refused to stand for the anthem. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said at the annual league meeting in March in Orlando 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.”

McNair said in March: “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.”

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Profootballtalk reported last month that Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown met with former San Francisco 49ers safety Reid and discussed the anthem issue when Reid visited the Bengals as a free agent. Reid has protested during the national anthem since 2016, when his then-teammate, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, began the movement by sitting and then kneeling during the anthem in protest of the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. Brown told Reid that he intended to prohibit Bengals players from kneeling during the anthem, according to the report.

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Kaepernick remains unsigned and has a pending grievance accusing teams of colluding to keep him out of the league. Reid is similarly unsigned as this NFL offseason continues and also has filed a collusion grievance.

The issue ignited a national debate last season after President Trump was critical of players who refused to stand for the anthem as a means of protest. When owners met last October in New York with the controversy raging, they declined 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 to require it. They said they were focused on their discussions with the players that led to a social justice accord, by which the league and teams are providing funding to community activism projects deemed important by the players.

Goodell worked closely on that agreement with the leaders of a group known as the Players Coalition, including Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Some within the sport say that the cooperation between Goodell and the players on that issue makes it unlikely that Goodell would support any effort to require players to stand for the anthem.

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Players said then that there was no agreement as part of the social justice deal that they be required to stand for the anthem. But it also appeared that some owners were hopeful that the deal would lead players to voluntarily stand for the anthem. Some divisions on the players’ side became evident as Reid and some other players left the Players Coalition last year, saying that the group no longer represented their views.

The other potential compromise of requiring players on the sideline to stand but giving them the option to remain in the locker room would be modeled on an approach taken for a portion of last season by the Miami Dolphins. It’s not clear how many owners would favor that as a leaguewide approach over making it a team-by-team issue.

The owners discussed the anthem policy during the March meeting but took no votes and came to no resolution. Several owners said then that they expect a resolution at the May meeting.

“It is a sensitive, complicated issue, and we’re going to deal with it at our May meeting,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said at the March meeting in Orlando.

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