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NFL hasn’t done all it can to persuade players not to protest, but it’s getting started

‘Progress doesn’t always occur quickly – but it’s important that it occurs’

Players knelt, raised fists, locked arms and some remained in locker rooms as the national anthem played. In other words, just another NFL Sunday in 2017.

After league meetings concluded last week in New York without resolution on the divisive issue of players protesting during the anthem to shine a light on racial injustice in the U.S., players signaled their intention to continue demonstrating. Owners, high-ranking league executives, NFL Players Association officials and players expressed optimism about two days of meetings during which the protests – and the potential harm they pose to the NFL’s long-term financial stability – dominated talks.

Based on what occurred around the league at games and the fact that there’s no plan in place for owners to partner with players on their issues, and thereby persuading them to stop demonstrating, many NFL observers have argued that no progress has been made regarding the league’s long-running public relations nightmare. But they’re wrong.

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, among more than a dozen players who met with owners last week, said progress doesn’t always occur quickly – but it’s important that it occurs.

“We definitely had good conversations that can, hopefully, lead to something productive to help people, which is all we’ve always wanted,” said Reid, who continued to lead a group of eight 49ers players who took a knee before facing the Dallas Cowboys. “We’ll just have to wait and see, but there are potentially some things happening.”

Some owners arrived in New York last week hoping the league would amend the NFL’s game operations manual, which states players should stand for the anthem, but that idea was a nonstarter. Commissioner Roger Goodell realized that any attempt to essentially bully the players would only make the mess worse.

No one was more concerned than Goodell about widespread fan backlash to the protests and fears about the bottom line of both the NFL and that of its corporate partners. But the players have been so effective at applying pressure, that Goodell got it: This wasn’t business as usual. Throughout the game’s history, owners had maintained control on, well, basically everything. Not on this one, though.

Think about it: 14 months after then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat and then knelt to protest police brutality and racial inequality, owners sat across the table from activist-players to listen to them – in earnest, players who attended the meeting insist – about issues that primarily affect black and brown bodies. The sides plan to resume their dialogue by early next month at the latest, Goodell said.

Soon, the league is expected to unveil a comprehensive plan to support players in bolstering African-American communities. It would be incorrect, however, to say the NFL has done nothing to this point.

Criminal justice reform is at the top of the players’ to-do list. Goodell and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin recently co-signed a letter sent to congressional leaders backing a bipartisan legislative bill that seeks criminal justice reform.

The NFL offered its “full support,” the letter states, of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. The bill seeks reforms and targets enhanced mandatory minimums for prior drug felons, increases judicial discretion for sentencing and reforms enhanced mandatory minimums and sentences.

It’s fair to say that NFL owners likely would not have been out front (or even anywhere in the neighborhood, for that matter) on this issue without significant prodding from players.

There’s also the league’s new initiative at Morehouse College: It has agreed to fund a two-day social advocacy/activism boot camp, beginning Feb. 21, 2018.

By backing the reform bill and bankrolling the boot camp, the league has indicated it hears the players. Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas, another leader in the movement, said it all starts with reform.

“When you look at criminal justice reform, we need to [enact] laws that help guys re-enter society,” Thomas, among three Dolphins who remained in the locker room Sunday before a game against the New York Jets, recently told The Undefeated.

“We also need a huge push to look at the laws that lead to people going to jail in the first place. Let’s work on getting legislation that addresses that.”

Clearly, the league is starting to put in work to back players. How fast it goes will likely determine how much longer protests remain as much a part of the game as the anthem itself.

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