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NFL owners to vote on historic partnership to forge social justice change

The $89 million deal with the Players Coalition is on the league’s meeting agenda

During the annual league meeting beginning Sunday in Orlando, Florida, NFL owners are expected to approve a landmark seven-year, $89 million deal to bankroll causes considered important to African-American communities. The NFL would join forces with the Players Coalition, the main group of players who protested during the national anthem to shine a light on racial injustice, and become the first major sports league to partner with its players to effect social justice change.

A three-fourths vote by owners (24 of 32) is needed to ratify the proposal that commissioner Roger Goodell and Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, negotiated for months with Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin, co-founders of the coalition. In November, the sides reached an agreement in principle to fund projects focusing on criminal justice reform, law enforcement/community relations and education. Not surprisingly, Boldin will be monitoring events at the meetings closely.

“Most people think our work just started this year, but it really has been a couple of years’ worth of work to get to this point,” Boldin, a three-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion during a 14-year NFL career, said this week.

“To have them [owners] vote, and hopefully vote in our favor, to continue to work with the coalition is [important]. I hope they realize the work that players have been doing, the impact that we’ve already had and how much more of an impact we can make with the NFL helping us and backing us.”

The $73 million in national funding has already been vetted and approved, a league source said. The owners, however, must vote on the level of local funding from each team.

If the NFL and the coalition move forward together, it would mark a major development in the peaceful yet controversial movement that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started when he refused to stand for the national anthem during the 2016 season. Over the past two years, the NFL has faced intense backlash from fans angered that players expressed their political views partly by protesting during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

President Donald Trump’s attacks on protesting players offended many players who hadn’t previously taken a knee or raised a fist, igniting weeks of large-scale protests across the league. Although the right to protest peacefully is protected by the Constitution, the players’ demonstrations alarmed owners concerned about potential long-term damage to their iconic brand.

Even the NFL’s unprecedented agreement with the coalition was not without controversy: Some players broke away from the coalition because of their dissatisfaction with how Jenkins and Boldin handled negotiations. Goodell, believing that an agreement was at hand, was furious when ESPN reported that players were breaking off, according to one league source. But ultimately, Boldin and Jenkins persuaded Goodell to stand with the coalition and help them help others.

The NFL’s proposed financial package does not include language calling for players to end protests during the national anthem in exchange for funds; there’s no implicit quid pro quo. Clearly, though, owners are hopeful for a big payoff.

“That’s the league’s expectation,” Boldin said. “We’ve always maintained that players have the right to do whatever it is that they felt they need to do. We’ve always relayed that to the NFL. We don’t control players. We don’t control what players do. What we asked the NFL to do was give players a larger platform to make their voices heard.”

Under the rules of the NFL’s game operations manual, players are not required to stand for the anthem. At the upcoming meeting, however, owners are expected to discuss making changes to anthem policy, but no vote is planned, a league source familiar with the owners’ thinking said. Owners could lay the groundwork for taking a vote at the league meeting in Atlanta in May.

Many civil rights activists and players believe that Kaepernick has been shut out of the league because he was the first to protest. Despite his accomplishments, Kaepernick remained unsigned throughout the entire 2017 season. Meanwhile, several far less-accomplished passers have gotten jobs. In October, Kaepernick filed a grievance under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, alleging that owners have conspired to keep him out of the league. It appears Kaepernick’s NFL career is over.

And many signs clearly point to owners making a strong push to eventually end protests during the anthem.

The Houston Texans recently denied a report that they will not sign any free agents who took a knee during the anthem. After recently saying that “all of our players will be standing” for the anthem, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross walked back those comments. Obviously, things aren’t perfect, Boldin said. But by approving the funding proposal, the NFL would be moving in the right direction.

“You can’t say that the hurdle is cleared until the funds are exchanged,” he said. “It’s one thing to agree to it in principle, but until it actually happens you’re holding your breath.

“We did agree in principle. And we’re going to do everything we can to hold the owners and the NFL to their side of the agreement; hopefully they’ll follow through on their word.”

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