Two weeks removed from numerous displays of unity between owners of NFL teams, protesting players and a league under siege by the White House, some cracks are showing in the solidarity of the owners' response to President Trump. That comes while Trump and Vice President Pence continue to take aim at ongoing protests by NFL players during the national anthem before games, and while the league searches for the least disruptive path forward to minimize potential damage among fans and sponsors.
The NFL declined to comment Monday on statements made Sunday night in Arlington, Tex., by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who vowed that his team would sit down any player who, in Jones's words, shows disrespect toward the American flag by protesting during the anthem. Jones's remarks, made after the Cowboys' loss at home to the Green Bay Packers, made him the first owner to so strongly articulate such a viewpoint.
That prompted a response Monday by DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, who said that he and players had been assured last Tuesday by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and New York Giants co-owner John Mara “that they would respect the Constitutional rights of our members without retribution.”
“No player is disrespecting our country or our flag,” Smith said in a statement. “As thousands have shown in the past, it takes bravery and courage to speak and confront these issues as our players have, especially when it is unpopular with some.”
Trump’s initial remarks at a campaign rally in Alabama, at which he said owners should fire any player who protests during the anthem, were followed by owners expressing support for players and, in some cases, condemning Trump’s remarks as divisive. Some owners stood arm in arm with players before games in what were called displays of unity.
Three teams skipped the anthem entirely the first weekend after Trump made his comments. Many players took a knee during the anthem, a protest movement begun last season by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to bring attention to racial inequality in the United States.
Trump and Pence have not relented. Pence attended Sunday's 49ers-Colts game in Indianapolis but made an exit soon after the anthem, citing players' protests. Trump indicated that he'd directed Pence to do just that.
San Francisco safety Eric Reid, who has participated in the protests since kneeling alongside Kaepernick last season, told reporters after the game that players will continue the protests.
“I have the utmost respect for the military, for the anthem, for the flag,” Reid said. “So I will say that every time y’all interview me. This is about systemic oppression that has been rampant in this country for decades on top of decades. And I will continue to say and encourage people to educate themselves of how we got to where we are today because it didn’t happen overnight. And it’s not going to happen overnight to fix these issues. So we’re going to keep talking about it.”
Late Sunday night, Jones said he did not see two Cowboys players raise their fists at the conclusion of the anthem. But he maintained the Cowboys simply would not play rather than, in his view, disrespect the flag. “We’re going to respect the flag, and I’m going to create the perception of it,” Jones said.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross also expressed a preference for players to stand for the anthem. His coach, Adam Gase, implemented a policy Sunday for players on the sideline to stand for the anthem, while also having the option to remain in the locker room or in the tunnel leading to the field. Dolphins players Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas were not on the field Sunday for the anthem.
The league has said it is not disciplining players or teams who violate the requirement in the NFL’s game operations manual for all players to be on the sideline for the anthem. The manual, which is separate from the NFL rule book, says there may be discipline for such violations.