The moment Joe Lockhart learned of the fiery remarks President Trump had made about the NFL during a campaign-style rally in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday, he quickly realized they had to be addressed.
The league couldn't ignore the fact the president had profanely rebuked its players — urging NFL owners to fire any "son of a bitch'' who took a knee in protest during the national anthem — and disparaged its product as "boring."
"When the president of the United States calls anyone a son of a bitch, that's a story," said Lockhart, the NFL's executive vice president of communications and public affairs, as well as former White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton. "We happen to be in the middle of that story because that is what he called our players."
That realization touched off 72 hours of debate and deliberations — first in the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters in New York, then at individual team headquarters from Miami to Seattle — about whether the league should, and could, rebut the president and defend its players and itself without alienating the fans and sponsors that bankroll their collective $75 billion enterprise.
The manner in which the 32 teams responded — both in tone and timing — shines some light on the differences among the franchises that runs counter to the common portrayal of the league as a monolithic enterprise, always in lockstep. The NFL doesn't like surprises. But Trump's remarks forced the league to improvise, and the hours and days that followed revealed differences both subtle and large among the owners, in how they do business and perceive their local markets, and in their political leanings.
The NFL Players Association, which serves as a union for the league's nearly 2,000 players, was quick to respond, with both its executive director and president denouncing Trump's comments.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose late father was a Republican U.S. representative and senator from New York in the 1960s and early '70s, issued a statement Saturday morning calling Trump's remarks "divisive." Goodell said they reflected "an unfortunate lack of respect" for the league and its players.
Within hours, New York Giants co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch became the first of the NFL's 31 team owners (the Green Bay Packers are publicly owned) to follow with their own statement.
Mara is a close confidant of Goodell; Tisch has been a donor to Democratic candidates. But, according to a person close to the deliberations, they would have responded to the president's comments no matter who occupied the White House. They consulted no Giants players but felt strongly about standing up for all the team's players — even though none had knelt for the anthem to that point. Mara and Tisch felt their players had been attacked, and they were also disturbed by Trump's assertion that the NFL's rule changes in the interest of player safety were ruining the game.
By nightfall Saturday, owners of 10 other NFL teams had issued individual statements — the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, the publicly owned Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach, Pete Carroll, and players subsequently joined owner Paul Allen in releasing their own statements.
Different points of view
The responses varied widely in intensity and specificity. Some criticized Trump or "the president." Most voiced support for players' right to express themselves. Others stressed the value of differing opinions. The Washington Redskins, who became the 30th NFL team to weigh in, releasing their statement at kickoff of their 8:30 p.m. Eastern time game Sunday, affirmed the unifying power of football and voiced support of the armed services, without referencing Trump or any precipitating controversy or issue.
"These are 32 different [owners] who run their businesses differently," noted Amy Trask, former CEO of the Oakland Raiders and a current NFL analyst for CBS Sports, in a telephone interview. "Some owners are more deferential to the league office and its wishes and desires. Some give their executives, GMs and head coaches greater say in how to navigate their decisions. Some make all the decisions and simply communicate them; others are more collaborative. The owners are also different ages, of different generations. And though all are tremendously wealthy, some inherited their teams and have no debt, while others have millions of dollars of debt on their businesses.
"But each one is going to weigh what he believes is important — what the head coach or GM advises, locker room issues, business issues. All those issues are factored in."
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was first among the 19 NFL owners to respond on Sunday. Kraft had returned from a business trip and watched Trump's speech live, during a workout Friday night.
Kraft is among seven NFL owners who donated $1 million each to Trump's inauguration, along with Stan Kroenke (Rams), Robert McNair (Texans), Shahid Khan (Jaguars), Daniel Snyder (Redskins) and Woody Johnson (Jets), whom Trump named U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. In addition, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is president of a corporation controlling a group that also contributed $1 million toward the inauguration.
Kraft has a personal relationship with the president that grew as Trump called regularly to check on his well-being after the 2011 death of Kraft's wife, Myra. In February, Kraft dined with Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and their wives at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. And Kraft gave Trump a Super Bowl ring after the Patriots in April became the first team to visit the White House during Trump's presidency.
But Kraft was so frustrated by Trump's remarks Friday, according to people within the sport, that it moved him, after a Saturday dominated by business travel, to issue a statement Sunday. Trump, after all, wasn't simply disparaging NFL players; he was disparaging his business, urging fans to boycott games if players refused to stand for the anthem.
According to Lockhart, the NFL executive, the league office communicated with teams throughout the weekend but didn't direct their responses.
"We're certainly involved in the conversations that are going on, moment to moment," Lockhart said during a conference call Tuesday. "To be candid with you, one of our roles . . . was to try to keep our broadcast partners up to date on what was happening. . . . We're in contact with everybody. But this is really being driven at the team level by the players in consultation with their coaches and the owners. . . . All of this has brought our teams closer together."
The NFL cultivates an image of a character-building enterprise that invests in local communities and stitches together the nation's complex social fabric. Along with the hard-hitting exploits of the athletes on the field, it has proven a successful marketing formula, making pro football the country's most popular sport by a wide margin and minting multimillionaires, if not billionaires, of the men and women who own the teams.
And NFL owners have proven fierce in protecting the league — or "the shield," as it's often called — battling their own players in court, as needed, to apply leverage in labor disputes, deny injury claims and limit catastrophic damages of lawsuits over cases of brain damage associated with repeated head trauma.
But in a three-day span, Trump's polarizing words had many NFL owners locking arms with these same players and, in Jerry Jones's case, adopting a carefully orchestrated, ostensibly non-offensive variation on a form of protest many objected to when then-San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt throughout the 2016 season to draw attention to police brutality against minorities.
'This is what the plan is'
Sunday's slate of NFL games kicked off at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time at London's Wembley Stadium, where the Baltimore Ravens took on the Jacksonville Jaguars. The decision by players on both teams to link arms during the U.S. national anthem, most standing and a few kneeling, as coaches linked arms with them, was intended as a statement of solidarity. The presence of Khan, the Pakistani-born Jaguars owner, joining with his players was an arresting sight, given his record of political and financial support of Trump. Khan set an example several other owners followed later in the day, Snyder, Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie included.
Khan explained his thinking in an interview with Sports Illustrated, saying: "I think the essence of America is the freedom to express yourself. If someone does that by kneeling, God bless them. It's not something that I would do. But that's your choice. There shouldn't be any way to punish, ostracize, or in any way make them feel bad."
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who stood with his fist raised during the anthem Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, said Lurie's presence among the players meant a lot. "It's one of those things that Mr. Lurie is not on the field as much. So for him to be down there and showing his support is important. I was happy to see that."
While players on many NFL teams started planning their game-day response on Saturday — debating whether to kneel, stand, sit or simply remove themselves from pregame ceremonies altogether — the topic didn't come up among Redskins players at any point that day, according to one member of the team, who explained the squad doesn't have many outspoken, socially conscious players. That wasn't the case in 2014, when Redskins Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark organized a silent protest among their fellow defensive backs in response to the police slaying of unarmed Missouri teen Michael Brown weeks in early August. The players ran out of the tunnel for a preseason game with their hands raised — adopting the "Hands up, don't shoot" pose that had become a rallying cry for protesters in Ferguson, Mo.
This past Sunday, in the wake of Trump's sustained crusade against NFL player protests, which he cast as anti-American and disrespectful of the American flag, Snyder and team President Bruce Allen met with Redskins players and coaches at the team hotel to discuss how to handle pregame ceremonies as NBC's TV cameras panned the sidelines later that night. It was agreed they'd link arms — with Snyder, Allen and coaches joining the players in the show of solidarity — and it was clear that most players intended to stand, although some would kneel.
Meanwhile, Snyder and Allen considered issuing a statement, deciding to do so only after roughly three-fourths of the owners had already done so. In weighing the content and tone, they gave great consideration to the fact that the Redskins were in the nation's capital; that the team's fan base included a significant number of servicemen and women, both active and retired; and that President Trump was a Washingtonian, too.
Neither man signed the two-paragraph statement; it was attributed simply to the "Redskins." It was one of just two among the 31 NFL teams' statements that were unsigned, with the Cincinnati Bengals producing the other. Because it wasn't released until the 8:30 p.m. Eastern time kickoff, Redskins players didn't have a chance to see it beforehand. When it was shown to one starting player after the game ended, he frowned after reading it, explaining after a long pause that it didn't reflect the sentiments of Redskins players. "I guess money matters," the player said.
Allen declined Tuesday to discuss the Redskins' process in drafting their statement and linking arms on the sideline, saying through a spokesman: "We're focused on Kansas City," Washington's next opponent.
Considering the response
In Charlotte, a group of Carolina Panthers players met Tuesday with owner Jerry Richardson, the Charlotte Observer reported this week, to air frustration over a fear of reprisal by the team if they took a vocal, public stance against Trump's comments.
Richardson, 81, was the 31st NFL owner to address Trump's statement and, in effect, advised players via his signed remarks to stick to sports. "Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it," Richardson wrote.
The Cowboys, scheduled to play Monday night in Arizona, had the benefit of watching what unfolded over the weekend before formulating their plan for pregame ceremonies. They held players-only meetings. The team captains held separate meetings. Coach Jason Garrett met with all players. Some wanted to kneel for the anthem; others wanted to stand. Owner Jerry Jones was on record as strongly opposing players kneeling during the anthem. They debated different scenarios for hours, not settling on the solution until an hour or so before kickoff.
It was this: Jones, along with his children who are executives with the team, joined arms with Cowboys players and coaches and walked onto the field, then took a knee in unison before the anthem and before the large American flag was unfurled. After a moment — and amid boos from the stands — they stood, returned to their sideline and remained standing and with their arms interlocked for the anthem.
"Our players wanted to make a statement about unity, and we wanted to make a statement about equality," Jones told reporters at a news conference late Monday night. "They were very much aware that that statement — when made or when attempted to be made in and a part of the recognition of our flag — cannot only lead to criticism but also controversy. It was real easy for everybody in our organization to see that the message of unity, the message of equality was getting, if you will, pushed aside or diminished by the controversy."
Explained Garrett: "It literally took us up until an hour or so before the game to say, 'Okay, this is what the plan is. We want everybody together. We don't want to be offensive to anyone. We don't want to step on the Arizona Cardinals' plan for what they wanted to do.' "
Jones did not issue a statement, but — as the lone NFL owner who speaks with the media after each game, win or loss — addressed the issue with reporters after the game.
"Actions speak louder than words," said one Jones associate. "Those other 31 guys that issued statements don't go toe to toe with the media after every game."
Days later, many in the NFL say they're proud of the response by players, owners and the league.
Others privately question whether it was wise for the NFL commissioner to take on Trump so directly. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity, some in the NFL believe Goodell shouldn't have responded to Trump's remarks. Had the commissioner only kept quiet, NFL teams wouldn't have issued their own statements, they argue, and quite possibly Trump and the public might have moved on.
Instead, segments of NFL fans booed kneeling players Sunday and phoned team offices this week to express their anger.
Lockhart, speaking to reporters Tuesday, called the Cowboys' and Cardinals' on-field actions "a strong show of unity."
"For those who oppose what they saw last night in Glendale, that's their right and their privilege," Lockhart said. "But it has not and has never been about [lack of] respect for the flag."