NFL owners are set to gather Tuesday in New York to open a two-day meeting, their first gathering since they huddled in May in Atlanta and made what turned out to be an ill-fated attempt to address the league’s national anthem policy and players’ protests during the anthem.
The circumstances are far different for the owners now. Few players are protesting this season. The uproar over the once-so-polarizing issue has subsided, and the matter has faded into the background while the NFL enjoys a season in which games have been captivating, scoring totals and passing numbers are soaring and TV ratings are encouraging.
The biggest tempests for the league to address this season have involved comparatively routine topics such as officiating and rule tweaks, such as the early-season furor over roughing-the-passer penalties. The revamped national anthem policy ratified by the owners in May remains on hold under an agreement with the NFL Players Association. Deliberations between the league and players' union over a new, mutually agreeable policy have not yielded a resolution.
At Tuesday’s meeting, owners are expected to discuss the status of anthem-policy negotiations with the players' union within the context of a broader conversation about social-justice initiatives with the players. The owners are not expected to take any actions regarding the anthem policy at this meeting. There is little reason for them to bring the topic back to the public’s attention, and it has become increasingly likely that the league and union won’t act on the matter until the upcoming offseason at the earliest.
But eventually, the owners will have a decision to make: Should they and the league stand by and hope that the controversy fades away for good? Or must they take advantage of the lull to act at some point, before President Trump returns to the issue and passions become inflamed again?
One person familiar with the league’s inner workings said “that’s a great question,” adding recently that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials probably are waiting to hear what owners say at this week’s meeting.
“They’re pleased they went to no policy after the reaction that the May policy prompted,” that person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the anthem deliberations between the league and union have been conducted under a vow of confidentiality. “They track everything very closely in terms of what the players are doing with any protests. So I think they’re pleased but nervous, and I think they’re going to remain that way as long as Trump is in office.”
A high-ranking official with one NFL team said there has been little to no movement lately in the negotiations between the league and union over a new anthem policy: “Nada.” A person on the players’ side expressed a similar view when asked if there have been developments: “Not at all.”
Miami Dolphins wide receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson have continued to kneel during the anthem this season. Safety Eric Reid resumed his protests after being signed by the Carolina Panthers before Week 4. Reid previously had joined quarterback Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the anthem when they were San Francisco 49ers teammates.
Reid, like Kaepernick, filed a grievance against the league and teams accusing them of collusion. Kaepernick, who began the protest movement in 2016 to bring attention to racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans, remains unsigned.
But this season, few other players have joined in the protests. Meanwhile, the NFLPA and its executive director, DeMaurice Smith, are dealing with the league on the anthem policy.
Moderate owners, according to people familiar with the situation, have been willing to strike a deal with the union by which the owners would waive discipline for any protest by a player if the NFLPA endorses players standing during the anthem. That would amount to a nonbinding pledge by the union, given that a player would not be disciplined for a protest. Even so, it has not resulted in an agreement to this point.
“If I’m playing De Smith’s cards, what does he get from that?” said the person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings. “If the league could make the case that this is costing everyone this much money [in lost revenue] and the players are losing half of that [under the salary cap system], that’s one thing. But I’m not sure the league can make that case.”
The policy ratified by the owners in May empowered the league to fine a team for any protest by a player. It left it up to each team to decide whether to discipline a player for a protest, and it gave players the option to remain in the locker room for the anthem. The NFLPA filed a grievance and contemplated possible litigation. All of that was put on hold, along with the May policy, by the July agreement with the league, which was announced on the same day as it was reported that the Dolphins were leaving open the possibility of suspending a player for a protest for conduct detrimental to the team.
Trump has been relatively quiet on the topic lately after being consistently critical of the players’ protests since last fall. For the NFL, the current status quo seems tolerable.
“It’s better,” the person familiar with the NFL’s inner workings said, “than exacerbating it.”
Owners are scheduled to receive updates during this week’s meeting from the league’s competition committee, which intervened recently to clarify the roughing-the-passer guidelines. Many defensive players have remained displeased, however, with how quarterbacks are being protected by the game officials.