It’s time for NFL owners, players to close deal on fighting racial inequality
Potential civil war should not deter focus from reaching agreement as soon as possible
With Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones attempting to whack NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, league business could be adversely affected by a potential civil war. That only increases the urgency for owners to finally strike a deal with players who have protested during the national anthem against racial inequality.
In their latest meticulously reported story about turmoil in professional sports’ most successful league, my colleagues Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. detail why Jones wants Goodell gone. Many team executives and coaches for weeks have told reporters that the genesis of Jones’ vendetta against Goodell is the six-game suspension the league office levied against star Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. But Wickersham and Van Natta Jr. go much deeper, painting a picture of growing frustration among a cadre of owners — with Jones, as always, in the pole position — about the growth and expanding power of the league office during Goodell’s tenure, as well as Goodell’s questionable handling of high-profile situations.
For the NFL and its corporate partners, there’s no more pressing concern than protests during the national anthem.
Since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited the peaceful movement in 2016 by sitting and then kneeling during the anthem to shine a light on racial injustice, Goodell and his top lieutenants have faced constant pressure from owners concerned about fan backlash to the protests. The billionaires whom Goodell serves want players to stop kneeling, raising fists or engaging in any other demonstrations that have prompted many fans to turn their backs on the NFL.
After what both sides described as a productive first face-to-face session during last month’s league meetings in New York, it seemed they were steadily moving toward an agreement that would prompt most if not all protesting players to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There was discussion of scheduling another meeting for late October or early November. But then a series of events — most notably, the public backlash to an insensitive comment made by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair and the players’ desire to have mediation as well as legal representation at future meetings — prompted owners to push pause on another potential sit-down. Although dialogue has continued on conference calls and through text messages, that’s not the same thing as sitting across a table, working through issues and reaching a resolution.
The unexpected hurdles to scheduling a meeting the past few weeks serve as reminders of how complicated the situation is — and how easily it could be derailed. Even with Jones out to get Goodell, the commissioner, other owners and players can’t afford to be distracted. They should focus on forging an agreement as soon as possible or risk completely losing the momentum that was building. The longer players protest and owners express frustration, the worse the situation could become. And while dodging Jones’ bullets, Goodell must continue to lead. After carrying the ball this far, he has to get it over the goal line.
Goodell and his advisers have truly listened to leaders in the movement — activist-players are pushing for criminal justice reform, education reform and improving the relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement — and even some players critical of Goodell for, well, a whole lot believe he has, for the most part, taken the right tone in engaging them recently. “We have a great opportunity here, with our players, to really work together and to try to help make differences in our communities,” Goodell said after the meeting in New York.
Several owners — again, Jones was at the front of the line — haven’t been as welcoming to players in their comments. Jones threw gasoline on the fire, threatening to bench any Cowboys player seen “disrespecting the flag.”
Goodell resisted the calls of some owners to take a hard-line stance against players by pushing through new rules regarding the anthem, which, undoubtedly, would have triggered a legal fight with the NFL Players Association. Wisely, Goodell has determined that trying to force players to stand for the anthem would be a bad look.
The optics, he figures, would be much better if owners and players take a collaborative approach on issues that are critically important to African-American communities. The hope among leaders in the movement is that the league will soon announce a plan to finance at least part of the players’ agenda.
Even the best-laid plans, however, are often delayed or altogether scuttled during wartime, and the NFL could be headed toward billionaire-on-billionaire crime. Despite Jones’ declaration of war against his former ally, it seems unlikely that Jones would succeed in actually ousting Goodell. My colleague Adam Schefter has reported that Goodell should have a contract extension finalized before or during next month’s owners meetings. Jones, though, could continue to attack Goodell behind the scenes and stir dissension among owners, working to delay whatever Goodell proposes.
One could reasonably argue that it wouldn’t make sense for Jones to fight proposals to potentially close the book on protests during the anthem. Working against Goodell on that front would be some real cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face stuff.
Still, don’t forget: Jones reportedly told Goodell, “I’m gonna come after you with everything I have.” Then Jones brought up Deflategate, doubling down on his intention to destroy Goodell: “If you think [New England Patriots owner] Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p—y compared to what I’m going to do.”
It’s unclear how far Jones is willing to go to show who truly runs the NFL, or how much collateral damage could occur during a protracted civil war. But owners want the protests to end. Players want the league to step up and fund their agenda. Reaching an agreement is what’s most important. They can’t allow the Jones-Goodell cage match to delay or stop that from happening.