Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed, defensive end Frank Clark, defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive end Cliff Avril sit on the bench during the national anthem Center Justin Britt stands next to Avril. (Joe Nicholson/Usa Today Sports)
Columnist

The NFL is uncomfortable, huh? Good. The owners — many of whom locked arms with their players two weeks ago after President Trump verbally spat on the league — are eager once again to make the player protests, the controversies and the potential for money-sucking backlash disappear. Soon, they’ll be begging Plutus, the Greek god of wealth, to intervene.

It takes an abundance of moral cowardice to run a sport that expects to generate $14 billion in revenue this season. The NFL doesn’t care enough about its players’ brains, so social injustice is really low on the list of concerns. A century ago, politician William Jennings Bryan expressed his belief that “no one can earn a million dollars honestly.” His words sound like Dr. Evil’s ransom demand in the “Austin Powers” movies now. How do you earn $14 billion? By caring about absolutely nothing but the dolla dolla bill, y’all.

So cries for equality are a threat, and it’s no longer as simple as getting rid of Colin Kaepernick and his Afro. In Week 3, the NFL responded to Trump with historic audacity, and it turned out to be a powerful statement about unity — though it lacked uniformity of beliefs and purpose — in the face of a vulgar and unconcerned president who wanted to activate his most callous and prejudiced supporters. On that Sunday two weeks ago, the NFL triumphed because of its refusal to be intimidated by a leader calling for protesting players to be fired and labeling each one a “son of a bitch,” and in doing so, it showed a willingness to embrace America for every complicated thing it is.

It was a grand gesture for a day, for a football weekend, but the consequences have become clear: The original intent of protesting during the national anthem, which is to highlight racial injustice and unequal policing, suffered some dilution. Trump did what he often does: obliterate a necessarily nuanced discussion and turn it into oversimplified nonsense, this time about patriotism. He forced the league to take a stand on a polarizing issue that it never wanted to take until he provoked everyone associated with it.

Winning the initial battle against the blatherer-in-chief was simple. But it meant entering a culture war that is almost impossible to escape. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners he represents clearly want out. So they’re negotiating with the players to figure out how to depoliticize the game. The problem is, this isn’t a business deal, even though threats of boycotting the NFL could affect the league’s bottom line. There’s no price tied to freedom of expression. There’s no easy way to respect individuality and remain compassionate about humanity while, motivated by greed, trying to enact policy that quiets a player’s voice. It’s even more difficult when, just two weeks ago, the owners empowered the players by being participants.

It’s mind-boggling that the NFL didn’t already have an anthem conduct policy in place. The most controlling league in American pro sports left that detail open to interpretation. The NBA, which is supposedly this progressive, player-driven league, has clear rules about standing for the anthem, and Commissioner Adam Silver recently reminded his players of the policy. It’s accepted that it’s bad for entire businesses to protest, which is why the act was unprecedented until now. The difference with the NBA is that it has a better history of open dialogue and sincere concern for its players.

The notion that an NFL player is disposable dominates the league, from the way non-guaranteed contracts are structured to how the “next man up” cliche rolls off tongues the minute a player is injured. The NBA isn’t without its complications and instances of labor strife, but the impact a star player can have on a basketball game long has been respected. As a result, individuality isn’t distorted in some lame concept of team. The NBA player feels more like the partner that he is.

The NFL is saying to its players, “Let’s all get on the same page.” But everyone wasn’t on the same page even when the league’s Week 3 actions were intended to exemplify unity. There is no same page. It’s inconvenient for a league that doesn’t want to offend large constituencies that pay good money to watch football live or on television, but the owners should have known it was coming before they locked arms with their players. And the NFL should be very careful about making pacifying decisions, especially when the issues are so polarizing. Someone will be offended regardless of the league’s actions.

The focus should be having more honest dialogue with the players and coming up with real solutions that can impact every NFL city. The owners shouldn’t just be interested in protecting dollars; they should put some real money into supporting programs that advocate for equality. They should use their power to unite to form allegiances and commissions on race relations. They should follow the blueprint of some of the league’s most socially conscious players and bring their efforts to every NFL city.

The players shouldn’t be ready to negotiate and agree upon an anthem policy until the owners are more concerned about listening. It might take a while before the players think they have enough compassionate ears, and you know that? That’s okay. The NFL won’t burn down in the meantime. Some people want to scrutinize every week of television ratings and point out every boo directed toward a kneeling player and declare that the NFL is dying. A $14 billion sport won’t die that quickly.

For those who think the NFL is showing signs of struggle merely because of backlash to player protests, have you not paid attention to the league’s concussion crisis over the past decade? Have you not realized the quality of play has been declining for quite some time? Do you not recall the league’s ongoing issues with domestic violence and its vulnerability to the opioid epidemic? If the NFL suffers prolonged damage to its popularity, it will be for many factors, and it will be deserved. Player protests are among the most divisive concerns, and that’s why the owners are reacting with such urgency and worry. And if this is the issue that makes us see the league as frighteningly flawed, so be it. But don’t proclaim the cause of death before the death certificate is printed.

NFL players have something more valuable than Matthew Stafford’s contract right now, something they have wanted for quite some time. They have attention. And they have leverage over the owners on one key issue. They won’t relinquish any of that without sincere and fruitful conversations with the owners.

We often underestimate how much courage it takes to stand up for what you believe in, especially when you’re going against thousands of people who disagree in a stadium in which people are free to drink, react harshly and drink some more. Most protesters don’t wake up looking for ways to invite ridicule. They just want their concerns to be heard. When others listen, there’s nothing to protest anymore.

No matter how NFL owners earned their money, there’s just one way to protect it this time: honestly, and with the players doing most of the talking. Listen up, rich people. The language promises to be a little cleaner than what the president uses.