NFL owners take a knee, leave national anthem policy alone

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

For all intents and purposes, the NFL’s short-lived national anthem conduct policy is dead.

That’s what the league’s team owners and commissioner Roger Goodell signaled at the exit of the NFL’s annual fall meetings in New York on Wednesday, when all the power brokers passed on revisiting punishment for forms of social protest by players. The league’s anthem conduct policy was shelved by team owners last July and hasn’t been brought back to the table since, despite a handful of players continuing to protest social and racial inequalities during the pregame ceremony. But after the NFL’s broadcast partners stopped showing the anthem on television and political rhetoric around the issue died down, the league passed on revisiting forms of punishment in what was billed as a meeting where any changes (if at all) could be made.

With TV ratings rebounding and fan excitement on the rise again, you could say owners decided to take their own knee rather than fight against positive momentum. And that even included the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, who was previously one of the chief owners to carry President Donald Trump’s political water on the issue.

“I think right now we are going forward just as we entered the season,” Jones told reporters of the anthem conduct rule, which was passed in May and then shelved by owners in July. “ … One of the owners [at the New York meetings] stood up and said: ‘We have really gotten in a place that’s positive and – not that we weren’t [in a positive place before] – but we benefited from this.’ And I agree in relationships and sorting through where we want to go, and I’m so impressed with the social programs that the clubs and the players have engaged in.”

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was complimentary of NFL commish Roger Goodell. (AP)

Roger Goodell addresses issue

The NFL and player’s union have been continuing a dialogue about the rule since the league put a freeze on any forms of franchise punishment in July. While the two sides have kept an open line of communication and didn’t expect any change of tone at the New York meetings, the union was acutely aware that owners could throw a wrench in the progress made by the two sides. Particularly in the league’s executive session, when owners often speak freely and press for actions on issues they believe are being ignored. It was that session where Jones or others who supported punishment for kneeling players could have once again ignited the collective angst felt by the billionaire fraternity for the better part of the past two years.

No such movement materialized this week. And when Goodell was pressed for an update on anthem policy negotiations with the union, he turned the focus away from the rule and toward the social activism the league has tried to engage in with the Players Coalition.

“The focus of both the NFLPA and the NFL, the clubs and our players has been to focus on the effort of the players on the issues they have raised and how we can make their communities better,” Goodell said. “They are incredibly passionate about that. They have brought these issues greater awareness and they are working in their communities to try to make them better. They are working on issues, such as criminal justice reform.

“I have been on ‘Listen and Learn’ tours with players, owners have been on Listen and Learns. The players are out there as well, and we can see the tremendous work that they are doing. We have reported over the last two days on the tremendous work that is being done in that area. Most importantly, we talked about the impact that our clubs and players are having working to address these issues. That is where our focus is right now, as it should be.”

This is Goodell’s way of saying “We’re feeling good about the engagement with players on the social issues they’ve raised and we aren’t about to dive back into that political and public relations mess.”

Can anthem policy be examined again?

If anything, this week should send a signal that some team owners have recognized some of the mistakes they made when dealing with the pressure and rhetoric from Trump. Once a ratings corner was turned and other owners jumped into the fray to support the voice of players – like new Carolina Panthers boss David Tepper, who recently signed socially outspoken safety Eric Reid – there appeared to be a shift. A seemingly dug-in (and sometimes angry) group of owners went quiet, as if to step back and let the dust settle.

Once it finally did, and owners were able to see that the league could get along just fine with the remaining players who continued to speak out, the inclination to listen to Trump also faded, too. The president still occasionally visits the issue during some of his political rally-style speeches, but they are fewer and far between. In turn, NFL power brokers have felt far less compelled to engage what has almost become a white noise annoyance.

Does it mean the NFL won’t shift its stance again? No. The league was blind-sided by Trump and didn’t handle it well, so there’s no telling if there is something else around the corner that could shake up ownership again. But at least one thing appears to be clear: the same old screaming about the same old gripes aren’t going to ruffle many feathers this season. Not with so much going in the NFL’s favor.

As Goodell said when he closed his remarks this week, it’s a good time to be an NFL fan. And that’s a belief that doesn’t have time for politics.

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