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Roger Goodell: ‘We have a great opportunity here’

NFL won’t force players to stand for anthem but appears closer to working with them on social issues

NEW YORK — The NFL meetings concluded Wednesday without resolution on the divisive issue of players protesting during the national anthem to shine a light on racial injustice, but commissioner Roger Goodell again signaled that a plan is forthcoming while sidestepping President Donald Trump’s latest Twitter attack on the league.

For the second time in as many days, Goodell walked a tightrope while addressing reporters here, both praising activist-players for their passion in pursing social change and reaffirming the league’s commitment to honoring the U.S. flag and the anthem. Although owners did not pursue rule changes that would have mandated that players stand during the song, they articulated their strong preference for the demonstrations to cease.

Meanwhile, the nation’s highest elected official continued to make Goodell’s job more difficult. In an early morning tweet Wednesday, Trump resumed his criticism of professional sports’ most powerful league.

After meeting Tuesday with players at the forefront of the movement, Goodell said owners would not implement changes in the NFL’s game operations manual — it only states players should stand for the anthem — or otherwise pressure players to abandon their right to protest. Clearly dissatisfied with the NFL’s position, Trump tweeted, “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!”

Goodell didn’t take the bait.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference Oct. 18 in New York.

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

“We’re focusing on what we can do, what we [the NFL] should be doing,” he said, never mentioning Trump by name. “We have a great opportunity here, with our players, to really work together and to try to help make differences in our communities.”

Trump’s Twitter storm against NFL and NBA players late last month actually breathed new life into the protests. In leaguewide defiance of the president during Week 3, players on almost every team took a knee. Owners, coaches, team executives and support staff also joined them, participating in various exhibitions of team unity.

But for owners, that was a one-week deal.

Growing concern among owners about fan backlash against the protests recently prompted the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins to instruct their players to stand. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, as he often does, took things to a higher level, vowing to bench any player who protests.

Putting aside the fact that the league, under its rules, has no authority to discipline players for protesting, it would also be against U.S. labor law to require players to stand for the anthem.

The billionaires whom Goodell serves could have attempted to push through new rules regarding the anthem. And they would have undoubtedly triggered a fierce battle with the NFL Players Association.

For Goodell, trying to force players to stand for the anthem wasn’t a hill worth dying on. In his calculation, the optics would be much better if owners work with players in an effort to help bridge the nation’s racial divide.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks to the media after the NFL owners meeting at the Conrad Hotel.

Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

Players are most interested in criminal justice reform, education reform and improving the relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement. Those are issues Goodell figures he can persuade his bosses to back.

“We have a very good understanding of the types of things that [players are] interested in and how they can get support from the NFL to do that. And we want to do that,” Goodell said. “That can be in legislative matters. That can be in the community.”

Activist-players are optimistic that the league will soon unveil a multipronged proposal to truly support them.

“We used our platform to draw attention to these problems and get people talking,” San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, who was among more than a dozen players who met with 11 owners here, told The Undefeated on Tuesday. “We did it to garner attention that people in need weren’t getting. But if the NFL helps us by giving us a different platform, a bigger platform, that’s what we would use. We just want to get the change we need.”

The dialogue between the league and players, which began shortly after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat and then kneeled in 2016, is ongoing. Another formal meeting is expected to occur within two weeks, Goodell said. It wouldn’t be surprising if owners present a proposal to players during the next rap session.

Of course, no matter what the league does, it won’t end the nation’s problems associated with centuries of institutional racism.

The league could, however, take on a bigger role in confronting policing issues, according to Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-Louisiana). In a recent letter to the NFL, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote about the patriotism that activist-players have demonstrated in protesting, partly, against police brutality.

“I’m disappointed that the league hasn’t focused much more on this,” Richmond said on the phone. “My letter was trying to highlight to the owners that this is a big issue. When players leave the practice facility or the game and they’re dressed in [street] clothes, they feel what other African-Americans feel. And they have eyes. They see the misconduct [of some officers].

“They see the killing of unarmed African-American men and women all across the country. For the NFL not to talk about that more is a big problem. People don’t want to really admit that’s exactly what the NFL did. They chose to take on easier issues: inequality, discrimination and injustice. But nobody wants to address the hardest part.”

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