The controversy that raged during the 2017 NFL season, fueled in part by President Trump, over protests by players during the national anthem and the league’s policy in that regard, has faded.
Few players protested this season. Few fans paid much attention. The fierce and polarizing public debates subsided. Trump moved on to other issues. The NFL and team owners put aside their deliberations over the policy and are unlikely to revisit the topic in the foreseeable future unless forced to do so by a new set of circumstances.
But the social justice deal struck by the league and representatives of the players in November 2017, with the contentiousness near its height, remains intact, and players and league officials say their collaborative work on community projects continues. That work is to be given a more conspicuous platform Friday when the NFL launches a new social justice initiative, followed by the airing of public service announcements during the TV broadcasts of this weekend’s playoff games.
“If you look at history and you just look at life, there are certain things and certain times where something peaks and it’s a hot topic,” Chicago Bears linebacker Sam Acho said. “People catch on. Politicians catch on. And then it goes away. But our thing as a team is, it’s always been a thing for us to try to give a voice to those people who don’t really have one …. We got together and said, ‘How can we make a change for our city?’ That was regardless of the controversy and the protests.”
The new initiative is called “Inspire Change” and is designed, league officials say, to showcase the community work being done by players, owners and the league. Bears players will be featured in a TV spot scheduled to air this weekend.
“The intention is for it to be on the scale of the NFL’s other initiatives and programs,” said Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility.
When the league and the Players Coalition, a group headed by Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former wide receiver Anquan Boldin, struck their deal last season, it was estimated that the league and teams would contribute about $89 to $90 million between the onset of the arrangement and 2023 to community-activism programs deemed important by the players, focused in particular on African American communities.
According to the NFL, its financial commitment last year was $8.5 million (not counting an additional $2 million for NFL Foundation grants for teams and current and former players). That is projected to increase to $12 million this year, and does not count the money contributed by players and matched by teams. League officials believe its financial commitment over the duration of the deal could exceed the original $89 million estimate.
“The national dialogue was really confrontational a year ago,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “It was that way between players and owners. Now you’ve seen it come full circle. The work is being done, and it’s providing a great example.”
The NFL’s social justice efforts are overseen by a joint committee of owners and players. That committee just approved grants, according to the league, to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Operation HOPE. Previous grants were awarded to Dream Corps and the United Negro College Fund.
The deal was not received well by all. Some players withdrew from the Players Coalition around the time the deal was struck, saying the group no longer spoke on their behalf. Safety Eric Reid, now with the Carolina Panthers, was among those players. Reid exchanged heated on-field words with Jenkins before the Panthers played the Eagles in October of this season and later told reporters that Jenkins is “a sellout.”
Reid continued his protests, aimed at bringing attention to racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans, this season after signing with the Panthers. He previously protested alongside quarterback Colin Kaepernick when both were with the San Francisco 49ers. Kaepernick, who has been out of the league the last two seasons, and Reid have pending collusion grievances accusing the NFL and teams of conspiring improperly to keep them unsigned.
Owners modified the anthem policy last offseason, but put the revised policy on hold before the season as part of an agreement with the NFL Players Association. Several people familiar with the deliberations say the NFL is unlikely to revisit the anthem policy any time soon unless a new controversy arises.
Meanwhile, Acho and others say the work being done in communities is what matters to them. According to Acho, Bears players make contributions ranging from $500 to $30,000 and the team raised, including matching funds, approximately $813,000.
Bears players decided to center their community-activism efforts on five Chicago-area organizations focused on helping kids and improving educational opportunities and the relationship between the police and the community. Most importantly, Acho said, every Bears player contributed time.
“We know that we’re not experts,” Acho said. “But we know we have a voice. We have a platform, and we care. We said, ‘Let’s team up with the experts.’… We don’t just want to say, ‘We wrote a check and now we’re leaving.’ ”
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