NFL player protests during anthem remain top issue at upcoming owners meetings

Texans players kneel during the singing of the national anthem before an October game in Seattle against the Seahawks. (AP)
Texans players kneel during the singing of the national anthem before an October game in Seattle against the Seahawks. (AP)

NFL team owners arrived at the doorstep of the 2017 season divided on player protests. Six months later, when the curtain fell on the Super Bowl, little had changed in the fragmented debate. And by the league’s annual meeting in March, the billionaire fraternity could really agree on only one thing: That any meaningful discussion would be tabled until May, when the NFL’s spring summit would convene and owners would attempt to extract themselves from a lingering political and social quagmire.

This week, that moment has arrived with the NFL’s spring meetings in Atlanta. And there remains a high percentage chance that once again, nothing changes.

That makes the player protest issue the top item in this week’s meetings, despite some gargantuan league developments that should be far more pressing. Under normal circumstances, the Supreme Court’s landmark gambling decision would have overwhelmed this week’s NFL business docket. Not to mention the multibillion dollar sale approval of the Carolina Panthers to hedge fund wizard David Tepper. Even the debate about potentially eliminating kickoffs or where to place the 2019 draft would have been banner headlines in almost any other year.

All of those pieces of the agenda remain significant this week. But none – not even the gambling developments – will come close to approaching the hot-button status of player protests. Maybe because it continues to roil the ownership ranks and league office. Or maybe because it’s not going away without a line-in-the-sand moment created by a rule change.

Why owners like Jerry Jones see it as a political problem

There are reasons to believe this is an unsolvable riddle for the NFL because there are two things we have learned about owners over the past year when it comes to players protesting on the sidelines of a football field. The first: There is a high percentage of agreement among them that player protests – especially during the national anthem before kickoff – fan a political debate that impacts the value of the game the league is selling. The second: There is a low percentage of agreement between owners on how to resolve the situation.

While a segment of NFL players knelt during the anthem to promote social justice and racial equality, the act continues to be absorbed by some owners as little more than a political problem that requires resolution. Whether it’s the Houston Texans’ Bob McNair, the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones or the Washington Redskins’ Dan Snyder, a handful of powerful voices collectively continue to seek some kind of expiration date on kneeling during the anthem. And this is a segment that isn’t going away anytime soon.

But the demand for resolution at this Atlanta gathering guarantees little. And the league’s owners may have been telegraphing that two months ago from the Orlando meetings, when at best, the only thing promised was that protests would be discussed this week. That’s a universe away from resolution.

Invitation for President Trump’s voice

Despite all the leaks of private conversations, memos, collusion filings and public proclamations by the owners themselves, there still doesn’t appear to be any kind of decision-making consensus. It’s why complete opposite ends of the spectrum remain on the table at these Atlanta meetings. On one hand, NFL owners could take players off the field for the anthem or ban the act of kneeling in protest altogether. On the other hand, owners could change nothing at all and leave it in the hands of NFL teams to sort the issue out on a club-by-club basis.

Make no mistake, the “do nothing” approach is unpalatable for owners like McNair and Jones, who want to see future political pitfalls eliminated. Especially with the high likelihood that when the 2018 season kicks off in less than four months, President Donald Trump will almost certainly attempt to seize upon kneeling again, renewing his attacks on the NFL and some players.

Even with that looming cloud, there has yet to be an overwhelming urgency that galvanizes owners into some kind of decision. They failed to find common ground in meetings in November. They kicked the entire conversation down the road in March. Now May is here – a supposed moment set aside to create a consensus – and the most resolute statement is that there will be “discussions.”

Over the last year, discussions have come and gone and little has changed in this conversation. That might be the most instructive part in this past year of debate – that it will likely go on, largely because the only agreement is to continue talking about disagreement.

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