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NFL owners’ pushback against protests could inch players closer to the positive change they seek

A hard-line stance may help move the conversation in a more productive direction

ARLINGTON, Texas — Since late last season, NFL players active in the fight for racial equality have privately expressed concerns that protests during the anthem, started in 2016 by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to shine a light on the oppression of black and brown people in the U.S., threatened to obscure their larger message. And after President Donald Trump stoked division by attacking players who have demonstrated peacefully before games last month, leaders in the movement focused on how to reframe the debate away from the field.

Ironically, NFL owners’ new pushback against the protests, which Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones articulated shockingly here the other day by vowing to bench any player who takes a knee, may actually help players move the conversation in a more productive direction and inch closer to effecting the positive change they seek. Both Jones and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said on Sunday that players on their teams must stand for the anthem moving forward. The United Labor Unions Local 100 has filed a complaint against the Cowboys. There have been rumblings around the league that other teams, including the Washington Redskins, have also issued mandates. Through a team spokesman, the Redskins declined to comment about their anthem stance. Recently, Detroit Lions owner Martha Ford asked players to stand for the anthem. In return, she promised to financially support the players’ causes.

In a letter sent to NFL teams on Tuesday, commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that “everyone should stand for the national anthem.” Goodell also cautioned that the divisiveness over the issue is “threatening to erode the unifying power of our game.” At next week’s league meeting, teams are expected to review a plan that would “include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on core issues,” Goodell revealed.

Under the rules of the NFL’s game operations manual, team owners are not empowered to force players to stand for the national anthem. During the anthem, “players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand and refrain from talking,” the key passage on the issue states in the manual. And if Jones, Ross and other owners did impose penalties for protesting, they would undoubtedly be picking a fight with the NFL Players Association — besides being on the wrong side of U.S. labor law.

For the players, though, a hard-line stance by ownership would end the false narrative that players have demonstrated specifically to disrespect the flag, the military and the government and its institutions, rather than what they’ve truly done: ignited a wide-ranging discussion about race relations and the disproportionately negative experiences that people of color have with law enforcement. Moving past the protests during the anthem is fine with Dolphins safety Michael Thomas.

In Week 5, Michael Thomas was among three Miami players — Kenny Stills and Julius Thomas were the others — who remained in the locker room rather than join their teammates on the field after Dolphins head coach Adam Gase required everyone on the sideline to stand during the anthem. The previous week, the three players took a knee. Now, Michael Thomas is concentrating on getting things done off the field.

“At this point, it’s not even about protesting and taking a knee anymore,” Michael Thomas told The Undefeated last week. “We did that to raise awareness. We wanted to shed a light on the situation, especially for those people who thought that there are no problems going on in minority communities — African-American communities to be specific.

“But at this point, there has been a lot of talk. There’s more awareness now. And that’s great. But the next step is, ‘OK. What do we do to fix it?’ Now, it’s time for the ask. It’s time to say what we’re trying to get out of all of this.”

In a memo to the commissioner’s office in August, activist-players Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, Malcolm Jenkins and Torrey Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles and the recently retired Anquan Boldin outlined the help they hope to receive from the league to advance their goals of racial equality and criminal justice reform. Michael Thomas and Stills are among a group of players who have engaged with league officials on how to bridge the nation’s destructive racial divide.

“There are three major pillars guys are focusing on: a) education and education reform; b) criminal justice reform; and c) work within our own community,” Michael Thomas said. “With education and education reform, we need to [engage] companies that can provide the resources to help more kids get the education they need to be successful. And we need to get these companies to help fund better schools [in struggling communities].

“When you look at criminal justice reform, we need to [enact] laws that help guys re-enter society. 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. Then, let’s work within our community to support organizations already doing great work. It’s just taking what we already started with our voices, that we already started with our platforms in the NFL, and just uplifting as many people as we can. It’s the next step.”

Michael Thomas echoed what The Undefeated has heard from other players on the front lines of the battle since the season kicked off. After Sunday’s game, in which he remained in the locker room during the anthem, Stills told reporters that it has “never been about the protest or the flag or any of that. I just continue to focus on the work that we are doing in the community. We’ve got some plans and things in the works with the NFL. That’s what we’re working on.”

During a recent interview, Stills went further about the protests, explaining that “there’s so much more we’re talking about, there’s so much more that we’re trying to change, so anyone focusing on only that [the protests] is missing the bigger picture.

“It’s a personal decision, obviously, about whether or not [to kneel]. A lot of guys were already thinking about whether or not [to continue], because the work that we’re doing [off the field] is what it’s all been about in the first place. That’s really what’s most important to us.”

Of course, regardless of the players’ willingness to end one form of protest while still pursuing their aims, the optics of owners unilaterally implementing a new rule to potentially punish players is problematic, to say the least, said political strategist and CNN commentator Symone D. Sanders.

“The owners see themselves not just as owners of a team but of the bodies of the players as well,” Sanders said. “They feel they own every single thing the players do.”

And if owners did take disciplinary action against players for defying their edict, they could further fracture the league and, more importantly, run afoul of the law, according to Susan D. Carle, a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. When employees band together to act in a way that protects or furthers their interests or rights in the workplace, they’re engaging in concerted action, which is protected by national labor law, said Carle, an expert in discrimination, labor and employment law.

“There are cases where workers have protested in favor of civil rights, and the [National Labor Relations Board] and the courts have said that’s concerted action,” Carle said. “So if they’re protesting around the treatment of African-Americans in American society, there’s a real good argument that the activities are protected. They’re not doing anything illegal.”

Bottom line: It’s a horrible look for the NFL, which is almost 70 percent black, to have its owners, who are overwhelmingly white, dictate to players how they may protest peacefully despite their form of protest being within league rules, said USC professor Jody David Armour.

“What the owners are really doing now is defining the meaning of the protest,” said Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making. “The meaning of the symbolic communication that the players are trying to engage in is protest of oppression. The owners are saying, ‘What you’re doing can only be interpreted one way — and it’s our way.’

“They’re telling the players what it means to kneel during the national anthem. Although the players may have a different meaning in mind, the owners are going to impose their meaning on them. The owners might as well just say, ‘We as the masters are going to dictate the meaning to you.’ ”

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