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NFL owners, players are moving in the wrong direction

Sides can’t even reach consensus on when another meeting should occur

LANDOVER, Maryland – Less than two weeks ago, NFL owners and players expressed optimism after meeting to discuss ongoing protests during the national anthem and how to best move forward together. It might as well have been two decades ago now.

The willingness of owners to truly listen to their employees’ concerns about racial injustice, the encouraging comments from both sides as they emerged from the lengthy rap session, the apparent momentum building toward resolving the most divisive issue facing the league – forget about all of it. The NFL is on shaky ground again after the revelation of an owner’s offensive comment during the meeting stirred widespread anger last week among players, who suddenly are growing impatient with management, and the failure of the sides to even reach consensus on when another meeting should occur.

Meanwhile, despite a setback that could potentially result in talks being suspended indefinitely or derailed altogether, one of the NFL’s most powerful owners stressed he still sees a path forward. Following his team’s 33-19 victory over the Washington Redskins on a rain-soaked field here, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said a positive resolution remains within the NFL’s reach.

“The very issues that are there can end up being a very positive engine for change and improvement. And we do need to improve. There’s no question about that,” Jones said. “This could be a great occasion for us to look for accountability, get it and move forward in a very productive way. I would say, and I’m really not a dreamer, in this respect, my best things that I’ve been involved in were born of angst and were born of issues.”

After arguably its worst week since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the protest movement last season, the NFL faces more issues stemming from its biggest one.

Players across the league were outraged on learning that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, among a cadre of owners commissioner Roger Goodell selected to meet with players in New York on Oct. 18, said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Considering that criminal justice reform is at the top of the list of the issues for which players have risked their careers to illuminate, McNair could not have chosen his words more poorly. And although McNair quickly issued an apology after the quote appeared in an ESPN The Magazine story, the damage was done.

At CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Sunday, most of the Texans players kneeled and linked arms during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Reportedly, the team had previously decided not to demonstrate against racial injustice before games, partly out of respect for McNair. Sunday’s display of defiance was preceded by players reportedly considering staging a walkout from practice Friday, and a weekend meeting in which they discussed a variety of ideas to best illustrate their frustration.

McNair’s words caused such a firestorm that a coalition of players requested to meet with McNair, Goodell and the still-unemployed Kaepernick on Monday in Philadelphia in an effort to address players’ “immediate concerns before additional progress can be made,” according to a letter obtained by ESPN. The letter from the coalition, which includes Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and recently retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin, stated that “many players have been deeply troubled by the disturbing comments made by Texans’ owner Bob McNair. It is ironic that such a quote would emerge in the midst of an ongoing struggle to highlight injustices suffered by people of color, including our nation’s deeply flawed approach to criminal justice and inhumane treatment of imprisoned people.

“The events that have unfolded the past several days have upset and angered many players and continues to demonstrate the lack of seriousness that some league officials are approaching our discussions. It is this lack of earnest words and actions that provoke and reinforce the continuation of our protest. … As long as the prevailing reality of our league includes a culture where owners feel such behavior and language is permissible, our cause will continue to be stifled and progress will remain elusive. This isn’t about being a player or a club owner – but basic human decency. … Regardless of our views, our disappointment and our frustration, we believe dialogue remains the only path forward, though our patience is being continually disrespected and is wearing thin.”

ESPN.com reported that the proposed meeting in Philadelphia has been tabled.

Asked about where the process stands, Jones continued to accentuate the positive. As he sees it, anyway.

“We do take these challenging times, while everybody to every degree is on edge, we take these times and look for ways across the board … to look for ways to get better,” Jones said. “We [owners and players] are all here, really, for the fans. That’s what we play for. That’s who we depend on. Everything goes back to something that’s attractive, if you will, for our fans.

“But my point is that this angst we’ve got, these different issues that are causing us to come together, no matter what position you’re in in the NFL, we can all do better. I certainly can. I’m really for pushing the envelope and really pushing to see where we can get better. And I want to do that for my players and I certainly want to do it for my fans. And I want to do it for the other people, the companies and everybody that are a part of backing the Cowboys.”

It was Jones, though, who recently turned up the heat with his controversial comments about possibly punishing Cowboys players if they demonstrated during the anthem. At FedEx Field on Sunday, Jones’ stance seemed to soften regarding the players’ agenda.

“When we were in New York two weeks ago, we invited ourselves to discuss and have continued discussions with each other as to how we could make things better for everybody concerned,” Jones said. “Certainly [for] our players, but just as important, our fans. … I don’t look at this as any crisis from the standpoint of a negative. I look at it as a crisis that will engender us getting better.”

Obviously, time will tell. But in Week 8 of a season marked by turmoil, it appears owners and players have moved further away from getting there.

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