Silence on NFL's anthem issue will speak volumes at fall owners meetings

When the NFL froze a newly adopted national anthem conduct policy nearly three months ago, the publicly stated excuse was the league decided to open a line of negotiation with the NFL Players Association. In reality, it was the league embracing a cooling period to consider the ramifications of aggravating a controversy that had receded from the full-throated peaks of the previous season.

The future of that cooling period – and whether anthem legislation will ever be enforced by an NFL team – will have a revelation of sorts this week at the league’s fall owners meetings in New York. Make no mistake, whether by action or inaction on the anthem conduct policy, the NFL will be telegraphing a message.

As it stands, the policy (which effectively banned forms of protests during the pregame ceremony) doesn’t appear to be a priority at these meetings. That’s interesting, given the league passed the policy last May but then shelved it in July – effectively sending the rule into purgatory.

That legislative limbo has given NFL players freedom to continue kneeling or taking part in other forms of social justice protest during the national anthem during this season. All the while, this week’s meetings in New York lurked in the background of that decision, with team owners knowing the annual fall summit would be a prime opportunity to revive the anthem rule if they saw fit.

Climate change in anthem discussion

A lot has changed in the past three months. Notably, the NFL has seen a TV ratings rebound, as well as a swath of excitement tied to young quarterbacks sprinkled around the league. This has come in the midst of an unexpected streak of silence from President Donald Trump, whose occasional rants about the NFL were already falling into white noise territory in the offseason.

What all of that means for the future of the league’s anthem rule remains to be seen. But it’s notable that there has been little fervor over the few players who continue to engage in social justice protests, including Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid – both of whom have the stated support of their team owners in their efforts.

Given that reality, the NFL’s quandary over the national anthem conduct policy appears to be right where some owners hoped it would land. On one hand, the league is engaging and promoting public works efforts with the Players Coalition.

On the other, a few players are continuing to exercise their voices without getting fined for doing so – albeit largely out of view now that the NFL’s network partners have stopped broadcasting the national anthem. In a bottom-line league, that’s a very tenable situation when ratings and excitement are up, while controversy and political scorn has withered.

And that likely explains why this meeting is being approached as a far more progressive affair than the one in October of 2017, when the owners scrambled to respond to the anthem firestorm that Trump stoked. That 2017 meeting ultimately became one defined by the private rallying cries of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair – both of whom wanted the league to push a harder line on the anthem.

NFL players protesting social injustice during the 2018 season
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NFL players protesting social injustice during the 2018 season
CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 07: Carolina Panthers players try to block the view of Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid (25) taking a knee during the National Anthem in his first game with the team prior to the NFL game between the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers on October 07, 2018 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte,NC. (Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Oct 7, 2018; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive back Eric Reid (25) kneels during the National Anthem prior to the game against the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 7, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett (77) sits during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 9: Robert Quinn #94 of the Miami Dolphins raises a fist during the playing of the national anthem prior to the NFL game against the Tennessee Titans on September 9, 2018 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Dolphins defeated the Titans 27-20. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Aug 30, 2018; Glendale, AZ, USA; A stadium security guard stands with her hand over her heart as Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall (54) and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) sit in silent protest during the national anthem prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals during a pre season game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Miami Dolphins Wide Receiver Kenny Stills (10), left, and Miami Dolphins Wide Receiver Albert Wilson (15) take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem prior to the start of the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans game on Sunday, September 9, 2018 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Photo by Michele Sandberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 09: Receivers Kenny Stills #10 and Albert Wilson #15 of the Miami Dolphins kneel during the National Anthem prior to playing against the Tennessee Titans at Hard Rock Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Miami, Florida. The Dolphins defeated the Titans 27-20 after two rain delays in the longest game in NFL history. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

Potential focus of these fall meetings

This year such anxiety is significantly tempered, with the meetings expected to focus more on typical business affairs: Competition committee updates; health and safety initiatives; broadcasting rights; international games and even a social progress report of sorts about the league’s work with the Players Coalition.

Of course, that doesn’t guarantee the anthem policy won’t be discussed or debated. As with every fall owners meetings, there will be an open-floor portion of the executive meeting that gives members of the billionaire fraternity the opportunity to raise whatever issues they feel need to be debated. That means if Jones wants to press for action on the frozen anthem legislation, he can stand up and say it. Or if McNair is upset that the league instituted and then shelved the policy, he’s free to air it out.

But presenting a speech and spurring action are two very different things. Both Jones and McNair – or any others – could lobby for movement and still be largely ignored. Or they could simply look at the renewed positivity surrounding the game and decide that in the grand scheme, The Great Anthem Debate isn’t worth revisiting after it has essentially run out of steam.

One way or another, the choices those owners make this week will say something. Either they revive an issue that has largely subsided, or they do nothing and leave well enough alone.

Both decisions send some kind of message. And when this week concludes, the rest of the NFL and its fans will know which one the league chose.

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