The first Sunday of the NFL season begins with no agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association on a new national anthem policy in place. Now the issue becomes how many players will protest during the anthem.
The season began Thursday night in Philadelphia with Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett sitting on the team’s bench toward the end of the anthem. Bennett initially stood behind Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, then walked toward the bench and paced in front of it before sitting with the anthem still in progress.
Jenkins stood for the entire anthem and did not raise a first during it, as he has done in the past. He is a leader of the Players Coalition, the group that negotiated a social-justice initiative last year with the league and owners, and he said after the game Thursday night that he wanted to focus attention on the work being done by players in their communities rather than on the anthem and protests.
“At this point I think it’s important for us and for the movement to continue to change and adapt to the context of the situation,” Jenkins said. “I think there’s a huge need for us to turn the attention towards the issues and not only the issues, but what players actually do in their communities to effectuate change. We’re trying to move past the rhetoric of what’s right and what’s wrong and all that. We need to focus on these issues that pertain to our communities.”
The NFL and NFLPA continue their deliberations that began in July when they announced a standstill agreement. That agreement put on hold the modified anthem policy ratified by owners in May and the grievance filed by the union over that revised policy, which empowered the league to fine a team for any protest by a player and left it up to each team to determine whether a player would be disciplined for a protest.
Moderate owners now are willing to waive discipline for any protest by a player in exchange for an endorsement by the NFLPA of players standing during the anthem, according to multiple people familiar with the sport’s inner workings. If there is to be a deal between the league and union in the coming days or weeks, it is believed that trade-off would form the basis of the agreement.
In the meantime, players must decide whether to continue the protests, which they have said are designed to bring attention to racial inequality and police treatment of African-Americans. President Trump and other observers have been sharply critical of such protests during the anthem, calling them disrespectful to the flag and the military.
A small number of players protested during the preseason. Miami Dolphins teammates Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson and the Oakland Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch refused to stand. Other players remained off the field during the anthem.
“The work and the demonstrations have always been parallel,” Jenkins said after Thursday’s game. “But at this point, now the focus hopefully is turning more toward the work as we continue to adapt to the situation.”
The opening slate of NFL games comes just after Nike launched a controversial ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who launched the players’ protest movement in 2016. Kaepernick was out of the league last season and remains unsigned by any team, and has a pending grievance accusing the league and teams of colluding against him.
“They did a good job of taking the context of what’s happening right now and taking somebody that has been to this point demonized and villainized in the media, and held him up on a pedestal,” Jenkins said of the Nike ad campaign. “Frankly, I think long after all of this is done, Kap will be looked at as somebody who changed the direction of not only this sport but just the dynamic of athletes quite frankly around the country.”
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