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NFL owners should accept what’s obvious: New anthem policy is not sustainable

The league hoped to shut the door on the controversy, but it’s still wide-open as season nears

Battered again over its nonsensical national anthem policy, the NFL has wisely put its new plan on hold and finally engaged with the NFL Players Association. After initially denying the union a seat at the table as it sought to collectively address the most divisive issue facing the league, owners now need the NFLPA’s help to heal their latest self-inflicted wound.

The NFL scrambled to work with the union after the uproar that occurred Thursday night as word emerged that the Miami Dolphins, in paperwork that teams are required to file with the league, revealed they’re considering suspending players a maximum of four games for violating the new policy. Owners and the NFLPA had been in discussions about the policy since the union earlier this month filed a grievance challenging recent changes. Backing off on implementing the policy and announcing the new union with the union were good moves for the NFL. Since Colin Kaepernick first demonstrated almost two years ago to shine a light on racial injustice, the owners haven’t made many.

They’re back on clean-up duty because of their ambiguous policy approved in May. Beginning this season, players who are on the field are required to stand during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Players, however, have the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer. Clubs will be subject to a fine if a player or any other member of an organization fails to show respect for the anthem (under the previous policy, players were not required to stand for the performance). Players will no longer be allowed to sit or kneel, which dozens did the past two seasons after Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has filed a grievance against the league alleging that owners have conspired to ruin his career, ignited a nationwide civil rights movement in sports. The league has empowered clubs to discipline players and other employees for violating the policy. That’s why the Dolphins were out there Thursday.

As more team disciplinary policies leak, it’ll only get worse for the league.

Before players report to training camp, teams submit a discipline schedule to the league, including suspensions for violating the anthem policy. The maximum penalty that a team can assess for conduct detrimental to the club, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, is a four-game suspension without pay. Although the Dolphins had not committed to such severe discipline, they listed it to leave open the option.

“We were asked to submit a form to the NFL on our overall discipline policy prior to the start of the rookie report date,” owner Stephen Ross said in a statement released by the team Friday. “The one-line sentence related to the national anthem was a placeholder as we haven’t made a decision on what we would do, if anything, at that point.

“I’m pleased that the NFL and NFLPA are taking a pause to figure out a resolution on this issue. I am passionate about social justice and through the Miami Dolphins and creation of RISE [Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality], will continue to use the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.”

Problem is, you could see the problem coming, as well as others, from the moment owners dug this hole and jumped in.

Because players are permitted to remain in the locker room, the new policy will likely continue to infuriate fans offended by the protests. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly attacked players for peacefully exercising their right to demonstrate, has blasted the league for giving players the option to be off the field. The NFL’s corporate partners, weary about the turmoil stirred by the anthem controversy, are now caught up in another negative news cycle about it. And the new policy, as the situation with the Dolphins illustrates, ensures that showdowns between owners and their workforce will occur throughout the season.

Owners, by backpedaling Thursday as fast as the league’s best cornerbacks, are perhaps finally on the verge of accepting what’s obvious: The changes to the anthem policy are not sustainable. Owners hoped to shut the door on the controversy in the offseason. Yet, on the eve of a new season, it’s still wide-open.

If the owners had worked with the NFLPA instead of going their own way, maybe they would have seen the canyon-sized holes in their plan. With the owners now supposedly interested in the union’s point of view, the union likely will tell them to go back to the previous plan because that’s what makes the most sense.

By the end of last season, few players were demonstrating. During the season, many players who are leaders in the movement that Kaepernick started expressed frustration that people who opposed the protests had co-opted the players’ message, incorrectly claiming that players intended to be disrespectful to the U.S. military and police. Players discussed new methods of accomplishing their goals. Then Trump ripped players at a rally in September 2017 and, well, it was on.

Time is running out for the NFL to get this right. Or after all of this, at least as close to being right as possible.

But the vast majority of players aren’t interested in protest for the sake of perpetual protest. They demonstrated to spark an important, nationwide discussion. Now, players are putting in work to effect positive change in communities. If the NFL reinstituted the former policy, which the union would undoubtedly endorse, surely some players would continue to protest. Even so, that would be a better position for the league than continuing along its current land-mine-strewn path.

As more team disciplinary policies leak, it’ll only get worse for the league. Does the NFL really want to deal with this mess 29 more times (the New York Jets and New York Giants won’t discourage players from protesting) before the season even starts?

Look, the NFL has truly botched this. If the union is reasonable and doesn’t overplay its hand, players just may wind up where they want be, which is where they were last season.

The preseason begins Aug. 2. The regular season kicks off Sept. 6. Time is running out for the NFL to get this right. Or, after all of this, at least as close to being right as possible.

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