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What happened to the NFL’s anthem controversy? Players focus protest elsewhere

The Lions stood, arms locked, during the playing of the national anthem before Detroit’s game against Dallas on Sunday. (Ron Jenkins/Associated Press)

The first four weeks of the NFL season have been marked by encouraging TV ratings; several compelling, high-scoring games; and promising young quarterbacks who are emerging as the league’s next-generation stars. The only significant controversy has centered on a roughing-the-passer rule.

What’s not on that list is the issue that dominated much of last season but has largely receded this year: players calling attention to police brutality and racial injustices by kneeling, sitting or raising a fist during the playing of the national anthem.

While a handful of players have continued to demonstrate, the protests have gone largely unremarked upon — by the league, team owners, broadcasters, fans and, most notably, President Trump. His vitriolic attacks on players one year ago catapulted their protests into a national issue, turned many fans against the league, spurred more players to demonstrate and triggered considerable angst among NFL owners over the league’s image and their own bottom line.

The reasons for this season’s relative calm are varied and not entirely clear. But the best explanation is a shift of focus by many of the players who have concluded that working for change in their communities is a more effective tool for addressing systemic social and racial ills than kneeling during the anthem.

“I think the greatest act of patriotism is to work to make your country better,” said Demario Davis, 29, a New Orleans Saints linebacker whose father served in the Army. “Any effort that anyone is doing is important. Everybody has a voice, and everybody has a responsibility to do something.”

Davis is a member of the Players Coalition, a group of about 100 players formed in February 2017 that works to address inequity and injustice in education, police treatment, criminal sentencing and other areas.

While a few players have criticized the group’s subsequent partnership with the NFL as a sellout, its work has proceeded without triggering a political firestorm.

“What we’re about is not what’s in the headlines or being talked about the most. We’re most concerned about the issues plaguing our country; that’s what we want to be on the front line of,” said Davis, who since joining the Saints in March has advocated for reform of New Orleans’s criminal-justice system. “When there are some deep injustices in our country — and a lot of them are around racial disparity — where can we use our platform to help?”

Dolphins wide receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson have continued to kneel during the anthem, but few others have.

There are other reasons behind the relative calm on the anthem issue.

In July, NFL owners and the NFL Players Association agreed to put on hold the league’s widely criticized, revamped anthem policy, which would have fined teams whose players didn’t stand and subjected players to individual punishment.

Trump has opted not to seize on the topic with the fervor he did in September 2017, when he called any NFL player who knelt a “son of a bitch” and indicated team owners should fire such a player.

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Another factor, in the view of Gabe Feldman, professor of law and director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane, simply could be “issue fatigue” more than two years after quarterback Colin Kaepernick triggered a national conversation about social activism — and whether, when, where and how professional athletes have a right to take part — by sitting and then kneeling during the anthem before San Francisco 49ers games.

“This issue still may be simmering, but no event has occurred in the last few months to bring it to a boil,” Feldman said in a telephone interview. “To the extent it has happened, it wasn’t within the NFL; it was Nike signing Colin Kaepernick that was another triggering event that brought this to the forefront. The focus was on Nike and Nike’s earnings and not the NFL and NFL ratings.”

Feldman doesn’t suggest that fans don’t care about the issue; rather, in terms of national controversies, he suspects that other issues have taken precedence and pushed the NFL controversy to the background.

The shift in players’ approach was signaled on opening night of the 2018 season at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Philadelphia Eagles launched defense of their Super Bowl championship. One of the night’s major story lines played out before kickoff, when Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins stood for the anthem without any sign of a protest while his teammate, defensive end Michael Bennett, sat on the team’s bench toward the ceremony’s conclusion.

At his locker afterward, Jenkins was asked about his pregame approach. He hadn’t done anything, he pointed out. But his inaction was notable because Jenkins, a leader of the Players Coalition, had previously raised a fist during the anthem.

“The work and the demonstrations have always been parallel,” Jenkins said. “But at this point, now the focus hopefully is turning more toward the work as we continue to adapt to the situation . . . I think there’s a huge need for us to turn the attention toward the issues and not only the issues but what players actually do in their communities to effectuate change. We’re trying to move past the rhetoric of what’s right and what’s wrong and all that; we need to focus on these issues that pertain to our communities.”

Others have followed Jenkins’s lead.

In Atlanta last month, former players Adalius Thomas, Harry Douglas, Tim Lester and Reggie Brown took part in a “Listen and Learn” forum about racial and economic disparities in the city’s incarceration rates and bail policy.

In Philadelphia, Jenkins and Eagles teammate Chris Long met with 30 community leaders on bail reform and the job needs of the formerly incarcerated.

Over the summer, Davis joined Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman to help supply migrant children with school supplies.

“We want the attention to be on the issues,” Davis said. “People’s lives are bring affected every single day. When you think about a bail system that keeps one person in jail because they can’t pay a $10,000 bail and people are going free because they can pay a $1 million bail, they’re in jail because they’re poor. That person could be the breadwinner in the house, so the spouse is being hurt, the children are being hurt. It’s going to have these cataclysmic results that directly affect the family’s life.”

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Not all support the approach of the Players Coalition, whose initiatives are financed by an $89 million gift from the NFL and its teams.

Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid, the first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick in 2016, called it “an NFL subversion group” this week.

“That’s why I removed myself from them, and I’ll keep moving forward with Colin,” said Reid, who, like Kaepernick, has filed a grievance against the league alleging collusion after being shunned during free agency. Reid’s claim continues despite his Sept. 27 signing by the Carolina Panthers, who desperately needed help in their shorthanded defensive backfield. Kaepernick remains out of the league.

Meanwhile, the NFL is essentially without a policy regarding player comportment during pregame ceremonies.

Amid the lull, there is no guarantee the protest issue won’t become a flash point again. But it’s far from clear whether any NFL anthem policy can satisfy both team owners and players.

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