Serious or stall tactic? NFL must prove its sincerity in anthem talks

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

When the NFL released a joint statement with the NFL Players Association announcing a freeze of its new national anthem policy late last week – only hours after word of the Miami Dolphins’ new procedure leaked to the media, not coincidentally — it was easy to feel mixed emotions.

There was happiness because a policy that tried to appease everyone but pleased no one led to another public-relations firestorm that caused both sides to return to the table.

Minnesota Vikings players link arms during the national anthem before the game against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 1, 2017 in Minneapolis. (Getty Images)

There was amusement at the ham-fisted implementation of the new rules, a classic NFL miscalculation for a league that has been a day late and a dollar short far too often of late.

But mainly, there was skepticism, since NFL owners have a history of regarding their players and the union in a way similar to how Leonidas viewed the high council in “300.”

Should the NFL be believed?

Even still, I want to take the league at its word. As someone who is weary of the NFL’s inability to solve the anthem problem and makes no bones about my passion for football, I want to believe the league’s decision to sit down with the NFLPA on Friday in New York is the start of something good, and that the joint statement the two sides released afterward — which indicated the constructive meeting concluded and discussions are continuing — will indeed result in a fruitful, mutually beneficial resolution.


I’m a sucker, I know.

It’s unclear how fruitful Friday’s talks were, but the players attended the meeting with four major goals:

  1. To get the owners to understand the importance of protecting the right to free speech and peaceful protest, a right they still have since the new anthem policy is currently on hold.
  2. To come away believing that the NFL is negotiating in good faith, which many are wary of since the policy enacted in late May took the union by surprise.
  3. For owners to come away with an understanding that even with a new policy, players mainly want to feel supported. While a handful of owners like Jed York of the San Francisco 49ers and Christopher Johnson of the New York Jets have expressed concerns about the policy, players have said it would go a long way toward improving goodwill between the sides if more owners were vocal about diffusing the misconception that protesting players aren’t patriotic.
  4. To find out what changed between last fall, when commissioner Roger Goodell emerged from a meeting with the players saying he didn’t feel the need to enact a new policy, and late May, when the owners pushed through a new policy, to the surprise of many.

 

None of that sounds unreasonable, though the players’ likely preference — to roll back the policy completely — seems mighty un-NFL-like.

Why the clock is against the NFLPA

What’s more, another big problem for the union as it negotiates a resolution with the league is that it’s essentially working against time. Preseason games start Thursday, when the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens kick off the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, and the regular season will be here before you know it.

Here’s why that matters: The closer we get to regular-season games being played, the closer the league gets to having more things — touchdowns, injuries, losses, etc. — to distract fans and media from the anthem issue.

There’s a reasonable fear among some the league placed the freeze on the policy and took the meeting with the NFLPA this week as a means of staving off media in the other 31 markets from going all Woodward and Bernstein on the teams they cover. Without the freeze, reporters all over the country would be digging into the anthem policy on their individual teams, potentially leading to 31 more Dolphins-like flare-ups, all of which hurt “The Shield,” as Goodell puts it.

Across the board, NFL teams are fairly restrictive with media access. But training camp, which carries on for the next three weeks, represents the one time of year where, in an effort to drum up interest and hype in individual markets, teams regularly make multiple players and coaches available on a daily basis.

The ability for teams to restrict the message — and thus, the potential damage of each team’s individual interpretation and implementation of the new policy — will be much easier by late August, when camps across the league start wrapping up and teams begin settling into a schedule more consistent with the regular season.

This could turn into a bargaining chip

So, yes, on the surface, the talks are a good thing. Maybe owners have decided to work with the union on a jointly agreed upon placeholder agreement. Maybe in a few years the two sides will simply copy the approach of the anthem-drama-free NBA, which engendered goodwill among players by collectively bargaining the mandate to stand with the players in return for other things.

But the truth is, short of abolishing the playing of the anthem before games or mandating that players stay off the field before it, there may be no easy answers. Even collectively bargaining the issue comes with landmines for the union, since everything is a negotiation with the NFL.

For instance, if the union brought this issue to the table as a topic of contention during upcoming labor talks, the owners could use a concession on their part as a means to ask players to make a concession on another issue. That’s stone-cold ruthless, since it’s the owners who pushed through this new policy without the union’s consultation in the first place. But it’s good business.

However, first things first. In the statement released Friday, the two sides indicated a desire to work together on a resolution over the next several weeks. Whether something materializes will reveal whether the owners mean it, or if this was just a stall tactic, a slick move to manipulate perception so they can continue to jam a policy a segment of their players don’t like down their throats.

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