NFL owners prepared to waive discipline for protests if players’ union endorses standing for anthem. (Stephen Brashear/Associated Press)

Moderate NFL owners are interested in a potential agreement with the NFL Players Association by which the owners would waive discipline for a player protesting during the national anthem if union endorses players standing for the anthem, according to multiple people familiar with the league’s inner workings.

It was not clear Wednesday, on the eve of the NFL season, whether a compromise will be reached between the league and the NFLPA in the coming days or weeks on a new anthem policy. But if there is to be such a deal in the foreseeable future, it could be based on the trade-off of the owners waiving discipline and the union supporting players standing, according to those people with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the NFL and NFLPA have vowed to keep their negotiations confidential.

Neither the league nor the union responded to requests for comment on the prospective compromise.

The timing of any deal, if there is to be one, is not clear either. Few within the league seem to believe there is a realistic chance of an agreement being struck before the NFL’s season-opening game Thursday night in Philadelphia between the Eagles and Atlanta Falcons. That would require an unexpected last-minute breakthrough, people within the league have said in recent days. Other teams begin the season Sunday and Monday night.

Any endorsement by the union of players standing for the anthem would amount to a non-binding pledge, if the owners indeed agree to waive any discipline of a player who protests. But it appears that moderate owners nonetheless would consider that a significant development which would put the league and the union on the same side of the issue. The league has said it wants players to stand for the anthem, and owners entered this round of discussions with the union seeking a deal under which players would agree to stand.

It is not known whether the union will agree to such a compromise. The NFLPA and its executive director, DeMaurice Smith, previously have expressed support for the players’ right to protest. Some players have said they would prefer that the league retain last season’s anthem policy, which suggested but did not require that players stand. In this case, however, any player who still would choose to protest would not face the threat of disciplinary measures.

One person close to the process said he’s not sure whether the owners being willing to waive discipline is enough to produce an agreement by which the union would endorse players standing. But another said he believes that’s the direction in which the talks between the league and union are headed, adding that most owners are willing to abandon discipline for any protests if that compromise results in an agreement.

Such an agreement would not necessarily put a halt to all protests by players. But the NFL preseason began this summer with a relatively small number of players protesting. Miami Dolphins teammates Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson and the Oakland Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch refused to stand for the anthem while others raised a fist or remained off the field during the opening week of preseason games. The moderate owners appear willing to make allowances for the possibility of a small number of players continuing to protest.

Those owners would have to deal with others within the ownership ranks who have taken a hard-line stance on the issue. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said that players on his team must stand for the anthem or face being benched.

In May, owners ratified a revamped anthem policy that empowered the league to fine a team for any protest by a player during the anthem. That modified policy left it up to each team to decide whether a player would be disciplined for a protest. It also gave players the option to remain in the locker room during the anthem. The previous policy had required players to be on the field.

The union filed a grievance over the May policy and considered possible litigation. The NFL and NFLPA reached a standstill agreement in July, keeping the league’s implementation of the May policy and the union’s grievance on hold while the two sides sought a mutually agreeable resolution.

The deliberations are taking place amid this week’s unveiling of Nike’s new ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began the players’ protest movement in 2016. Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem to bring attention to racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans. He was out of the league last season and remains unsigned as this season begins; he has a pending grievance accusing teams and the league of improperly colluding against him. A trial-like hearing before arbitrator Stephen B. Burbank could be scheduled for later this year.

President Trump has been sharply critical of the protests and of Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick in its new ad campaign. Others critical of Kaepernick and the protests took to social media to display scenes of them burning Nike shoes or cutting the Nike logo from apparel.

Nike is the NFL’s official uniform supplier but did not inform the league in advance of its plan to feature Kaepernick in the ad campaign, according to a person close to the situation.

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