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NFL owners, players meet to talk race, justice and working together

Eric Reid: It was important to explain to owners why these issues are so important to us

NEW YORK — There will be no quid pro quo.

No matter how NFL owners and players move forward after their productive and lengthy meeting Tuesday to discuss demonstrations for racial equality that have stirred friction within the league and widespread anger among its fan base, players will not relinquish their rights to protest during the national anthem. But for the first time since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a movement, activist-players expressed optimism that, with ownership’s help, they won’t feel compelled to kneel much longer.

“It was definitely encouraging to hear owners say they support us, they understand what we’re trying to do and they want to work with us,” San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, who was among more than a dozen players who met with 11 owners here, told The Undefeated. “It was important to explain to owners why these issues are so important to us.

“But this wasn’t about some business transaction. That wasn’t the approach anyone took at any point. No one ever said, ‘When you do this, players will stop doing this.’ That’s not what was discussed. This was a step of many steps to try to get to a better place, and you’ve got to take the first one.”

For more than three hours, owners, high-ranking league executives, activist-players and NFL Players Association officials gathered in an effort to both discuss issues that adversely affect African-American communities and to bring closure to arguably the biggest public relations disaster in the game’s history. Although no specific measures were announced, the tone of several of the meeting’s participants strongly indicated that owners and players are on the verge of finalizing a partnership.

“There are a lot of proposals and ideas that were discussed, all of them addressing the issue quickly, which it needs to be addressed sooner than later,” New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said. “A number of the recommendations are opportunities for discussion, [which] I thought were very thoughtful and very positive.”

As of late Tuesday night, a date for the next owners-players meeting had not been scheduled, but it will likely occur within the “next two weeks,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. The league meetings continue Wednesday. Players at the forefront of the movement are most interested in criminal justice reform and education reform, and they’re eager for the wealthiest and most powerful league in professional sports to use its immense resources to help them bridge the nation’s racial divide.

Based on the lack of any definitive action taken by the league Tuesday, some could incorrectly surmise that nothing substantive occurred. But the fact that owners are engaging with players on an unprecedented level to address concerns primarily affecting black and brown bodies shows the effectiveness of the protests that began when Kaepernick first sat and then kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to shine a light on racial inequality in the U.S.

It’s also significant that despite fan outrage about players taking a knee, and the owners’ legitimate concerns about the NFL’s bottom line, the actual protests during the anthem were not a focus of talks.

“We did not ask for” all players to stand during the anthem, Goodell said. “We spent today talking about the issues that players have been trying to bring attention to, about issues in our community. And I think we all agree there’s nothing more important than trying to give back to our communities and make our communities better. That was the entire focus.”

The reality is, though, that since late last season, activist-players have privately expressed concerns that protests during the anthem have threatened to obscure their larger message. Moreover, they’re frustrated about the false narrative pushed by those opposed to their methods: that players have demonstrated specifically to disrespect the flag, the military, and the government and its institutions.

In his most forceful language yet, Goodell on Tuesday pushed back on the wrongheaded thinking that players who protest are unpatriotic.

“Our players are men of great character,” the commissioner said. “They have a very deep understanding and tremendous knowledge of the issues that are going on in all of our communities. Their commitment to addressing these issues is really admirable and something that our owners looked at to say, ‘We want to help support you.’ Those are issues that affect us. They’re our issues also. We’d like to do it together.”

On the matter of the players’ motives, Reid, for one, was especially pleased about Goodell’s unequivocal support.

The first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick, Reid has been among the most vocal in stressing the need to “get the [players’] narrative back on track. For so long now, our message has been misconstrued.

“It’s not that we’re protesting the military or the flag or anything like that. We’re Americans. We love our country. But we’re trying to make our country better. That’s the reason we’ve done all of this.”

Kaepernick, who started all of this, didn’t attend the meeting — but he was still very much in the mix. Word emerged in the afternoon that the still-unemployed passer declined an invitation to participate. Exactly from whom wasn’t clear.

However, Kaepernick did not receive an invitation from either the NFL or the union, one of his associates wrote in a text message to The Undefeated. Lawyer Mark Geragos, who is representing Kaepernick in a grievance against the league, released a statement on Kaepernick’s behalf.

“Colin Kaepernick was not invited to attend today’s meeting by any official from the NFL or any team executives,” the statement read. “Other players wanted him present and have asked that he attend the next meeting with the goal of forging a lasting and faithful consensus around these issues. Mr. Kaepernick is open to future participation on these important issues.”

In the end, it always comes back to Kaepernick.

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