The agreement announced Thursday night keeps the league from implementing the anthem policy that was approved by the owners at their May meeting in Atlanta. It also keeps the union’s grievance against that policy from proceeding, giving the NFL and NFLPA time to work on an anthem policy.
Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a member of the NFLPA’s ruling executive committee, said arrangements were being made for face-to-face meetings in which players would participate. He said he’s optimistic about a resolution before the season.
“Hopefully we can do that,” Alexander said in a phone interview. “That’s the point of this, to have some conversation to come up with a plan that’s agreeable to both sides. We need to sit down and talk. That’s probably how it should have started out in the first place.
“I know there have been conversations about the grievance. But in terms of sitting down to talk about a resolution with players being involved, there hasn’t been anything yet. That’s the whole purpose, to have some face-to-face conversations about this. That’s what’s in the works now.”
President Trump, who sparked a national controversy when he said last fall that owners should fire any player who protests during the anthem, revisited the issue Friday.
“The NFL National Anthem Debate is alive and well again – can’t believe it!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Isn’t it in contract that players must stand at attention, hand on heart? The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand. First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!”
NFL teams have begun reporting to training camps, a process that accelerates next week. The preseason opens Aug. 2, and the regular season is scheduled to begin Sept. 6.
“There’s no hard timeline, but obviously everyone knows when the games are,” said a person with knowledge of the league’s inner workings. “We’ll work to resolve it. Hopefully we’ll get it done.”
That person said Thursday night’s announcement did not come at the behest of an arbitrator pushing for the parties to try to resolve the matter before the grievance is addressed. Neither did it come, that person and several others in the league said, because of the report earlier Thursday about the Miami Dolphins leaving open the possibility that any player who protests during the anthem this season could be subject to a four-game suspension without pay for conduct detrimental to the team. Rather, the dialogue had been taking place since early July, around the time that the union filed its grievance.
The document prepared for their players by the Dolphins was a standard one addressing disciplinary action for any offenses by players, they said. The Dolphins listed a protest by a player during the anthem as conduct detrimental to the team. Under the collective bargaining agreement between the league and union, a team can punish such conduct by as much as a four-game suspension. But the NFL and Dolphins say the team was not specifying that a protest necessarily would lead to such a punishment.
“We were asked to submit a form to the NFL on our overall discipline policy prior to the start of the rookie report date,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in a written statement. “The one line sentence related to the national anthem was a placeholder as we haven’t made a decision on what we would do, if anything, at that point. I’m pleased that the NFL and NFLPA are taking a pause to figure out a resolution on this issue. I am passionate about social justice and through the Miami Dolphins and creation of RISE, will continue to use the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.”
Many owners, even those who have expressed a sympathetic view toward the message of the players’ protests, have said they want players to stand for the anthem. It’s clear, then, what the league and owners probably will seek in the deliberations with the union: an agreement by the players to stand for the anthem. What’s less clear is what, if anything, the players might seek in return and what the owners might be willing to offer.
Alexander said he didn’t know what might be involved in the details of the negotiations.
“I can’t even answer that at this point,” Alexander said. “Even on the ownership side, there were different comfort levels with the new rule. . . . As players, we don’t want anything to change. We want it the way it is now. But we don’t want to live in a world where everything depends on the views of that particular team’s owner.
“We’ll try to come up with something that makes sense to everybody. There are a lot of moving parts in this. Even on the players’ side, you have people that have different feelings about certain things. We need to go into this thing with an open mind, both sides, not so polarized. We need to have clear heads and open hearts when we’re talking about these issues.”
One complication is that neither side has spoken with a unified voice. Owners have had varying views about whether to force players to stand for the anthem. Players have had differing views about what they wanted from the league to address their concerns.
The NFL at one point was dealing directly with the Players Coalition, a group of players led by retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. It was that group, not the union, that took the lead in negotiating the particulars of the players’ social justice accord with the league last year. Now the union is taking the lead in the deliberations on behalf of the players.
The NFL and NFLPA have had an often-combative recent history that includes a lockout of the players by the owners during the most recent set of labor negotiations and courtroom clashes over player disciplinary matters.
The owners said when they ratified the new anthem policy in May that they hoped to return the focus of fans to the NFL’s on-field product. That policy left it up to each team whether a player would be disciplined for a protest during the anthem. It said that a team would be fined by the league for any protest by one of its players. It gave players the option to remain in the locker room during the anthem but said that any player who was on the field would be expected to stand for the anthem.
The NFL’s previous anthem policy required players to be on the sideline for the anthem. That policy suggested that players stand for the anthem but did not require it.