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Anthem policy to be high on agenda at next week’s NFL meeting

Although it’s unclear what owners will do, they’ll probably do something significant to address protests

During their last meetings, NFL owners approved funding for their landmark social justice initiative with players. At next week’s gathering in Atlanta, owners plan to tackle the issue that put pressure on them to come to the negotiating table.

They’re eager to end the long-running protests during the national anthem that have angered fans, rattled the NFL’s corporate partners and vexed the league’s highest-ranking decision-makers. Several owners have implored commissioner Roger Goodell to take a hard-line approach and change rules that permit players to demonstrate on the sidelines. Some owners, however, have expressed concerns about the league unilaterally shutting down peaceful protests that have shined a light on racial injustice and were ultimately the biggest factor in owners offering $89 million to bankroll causes considered important to African-American communities.

Although it’s unclear what owners will do, they’ll probably do something significant to address the divisive situation, many league officials, coaches and players said. Former Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin envisions big changes.

Boldin, co-leader of the Players Coalition, the group that negotiated with the league on behalf of players who protested during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” would be “shocked” if everything holds to form entering next season. “I would be naïve to think that the NFL would continue to have this be at the forefront, or have this [even] be a topic of discussion, this coming season. I would be shocked by that,” Boldin told The Undefeated. “I do expect something like that [preventing players from protesting] to happen.”

In the two seasons since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a movement by first sitting and then kneeling to protest racial injustice, Goodell and his top lieutenants have had to juggle both the concerns of owners alarmed about potential long-term damage to their business and the public relations fallout from the perception that the league is in opposition to much of its workforce, which is almost 70 percent African-American.

Despite the NFL’s decision to fund a social justice initiative unprecedented in professional sports, the league’s spring meetings occur with many African-American players frustrated that Kaepernick still is on the outside looking in. In October, Kaepernick filed a grievance under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement alleging that owners have conspired to keep him out of the league. Then earlier this month, safety Eric Reid, the first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick when they were 49ers teammates, also filed a grievance alleging that owners have shut him out because of his political activism.

Additionally, the NFL Players Association filed a second noninjury grievance specific to Reid’s free-agent visits and a more general “system arbitrator case” alleging that any team that asks prospective signees whether they plan to protest during the anthem is engaged in bad-faith negotiation. During Reid’s recent free-agent visit with the Cincinnati Bengals, team owner Mike Brown reportedly questioned Reid about whether he planned to continue kneeling during the anthem. With that backdrop, owners enter these meetings seeking a new path forward.

To stop the protests, the easiest move for the NFL would be to change the wording in the game operations manual. Under the current rule, players are not required to stand for the anthem (in the NBA, players must stand). The league has great latitude with what it can do in game operations, so the players’ union likely would have no recourse to challenge such a move.

One proposal, league sources have said for months, is to add wording that would prohibit teams from being on the field while the song is being performed, thereby removing players’ ability to protest in that forum. As the NFL meetings kicked off in Orlando, Florida, in March, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair signaled that a heavy-handed approach would be just fine with him. “We’re going to deal with it in such a way that people will understand we want everybody to respect our country, respect our flag,” McNair told reporters. “Our playing field, that’s not the place for political statements. That’s not the place for religious statements. It’s the place for football.”

Outspoken Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has threatened to bench any player who protests during the national anthem. He vowed to do so despite the fact that under league rules and U.S. labor law, NFL owners cannot discipline players for demonstrating during the anthem. After initially declaring that Miami Dolphins players would be required to stand next season, team owner Stephen Ross clarified his comments, saying he would not force players’ involvement during the anthem. The point is, many owners are in favor of removing players’ ability to protest by writing new game operation rules. It appears that acting New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson isn’t part of that group.

“Trying to forcibly get the players to shut up,” Johnson told reporters in March, “is a fantastically bad idea. … I have some pretty strong feelings about that.

“I don’t approve of changing the current status. I know there is some discussion of keeping players off the field until after the anthem. That’s a particularly bad idea.”

There’s no language in the league’s $89 million social initiative deal that prevents protests from continuing. There’s no implicit quid pro quo. Obviously, though, Goodell hopes the league’s commitment has helped to foster an environment in which players no longer feel compelled to demonstrate.

Some players who have already stopped demonstrating have come under fire from NFL observers who view them as having capitulated to the league. Boldin has pushed back against that criticism.

“Protests serve a purpose. That purpose is to shed light on an issue, and the protests have done that,” Boldin said. “It’s great to protest, but you also have to have a plan of action behind the protest. What are you trying to accomplish? You can’t just protest forever without having a plan. But if they do come up with a policy change, if they come up with a way to prevent guys from protesting during the anthem, in no way does that stop the work guys should be doing in the community.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.