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NFL players discover their power. Now how should they wield it?

‘We’re paying attention to the bigger picture. Some things are just bigger than football.’

Last week a group of NFL players, owners and representatives of the NFL Players Association and the commissioner met in Washington, D.C., to discuss player protests that have put the league in the forefront of so-called cultural warfare in the United States.

There were actually two meetings: one between owners and players that was not sanctioned by the NFLPA, and a second that was.

New York Jets veteran linebacker Demario Davis was in the room for the second meeting that was called to accomplish a veritable mission impossible: The owners wanted to come up with a short-term solution to a dilemma that has confounded the United States for more than 400 years.

“The owners are trying to figure out what do we need to do to send the proper message and, at the same time, protect our game,” Davis said.

“We’re trying to send a proper message to the country that our country has a problem with racism and social inequality and we need to work on these things,” Davis added. “Those who want to send the message need to be able to send it in the right way so that it doesn’t harm the game.”

Since former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee in San Francisco during the playing of the national anthem last preseason, the NFL has been turned on its head.

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Bill Rhoden interview: Jets LB Demario Davis talks about meeting with owners and Roger Goodell to discuss protests.

The league has had to deal with many issues over the past five years, from domestic abuse to ongoing revelations about players’ brain damage. Nothing has gotten the attention of owners and fans the way these player protests have. There have been calls for boycotts by groups supporting Kaepernick, as well as by those who oppose him and the protesting players.

The tipping point came last month when the president of the United States, during a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, used profane language as he asked the people in attendance if they’d like to see an NFL owner fire any player — he called them “sons of b—-es” — who protested during the national anthem. For good measure, the president later said the owners were afraid of their players.

That was enough to push owners and players together — not around issues of police brutality or social justice but around the issue of respect for players and respect for the game and its custodians.

“He pushed us together, one for calling players sons of B’s, which is an attack on players and their mommas,” Davis said. “And it was an attack on owners saying, ‘You don’t have control of your players. You don’t have your players on a leash.’ ”

Davis added: “Our locker room is diverse, and it was unique to see so many players come together and say, ‘We need to stand up for this. This isn’t right.’ ”

After the president’s comments, Jets players decided they would lock arms in protests. Jets owner Chris Johnson, the younger brother of Woody Johnson, was appointed to an ambassadorship by President Donald Trump, asked whether he could lock arms with the players.

“He told us that he did not agree with what the president said,” Davis said. “He gained a lot of respect in our locker room.”

The protests have generated debate and even tension inside NFL locker rooms but have also forced teammates to speak openly about how they feel about issues and why. The protests have forced players to pinpoint the source of their discontent.

Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates — who had spent his entire NFL career before this year in San Diego, where there is a strong military presence — was never in favor of kneeling during the national anthem.

“I watched soldiers going into war, lose arms and legs for our freedom,” Gates said Sunday after the Chargers’ victory over the New York Giants. “I’ve had guys come to me in wheelchairs who said I helped them through a lot of situations like surgeries. So, I’m not taking a knee because I know what they’ve been through.”

Gates said he preferred to lock arms as a show of unity.

Other players say they feel that locking arms is too ambiguous a gesture and lacks a clear message. Other players feel that standing with fists raised, as Tommie Smith and John Carlos did in Mexico City at the Olympics in 1968, is a perfect combination of respect and protest.

On this point, I feel that it is an abomination and abdication of responsibility that the NFLPA has not stepped in and helped the players articulate a single-minded rationale for the protest and a way forward. But that’s a column unto itself.

When Gates entered the league 13 seasons ago, players kept their political views to themselves. Issues such as drug abuse, domestic violence and sexuality were kept outside in a personal space.

That’s no longer the case because of social media, escalating salaries and young African-American athletes realizing they cannot divorce themselves from the communities from which they come.

Players who may have previously kept silent about police brutality have been compelled, even encouraged, to speak out.

“If we sit back and let certain things happen in our neighborhoods where we grew up, and we don’t say anything, we’re just as guilty as the people who are doing it,” he said. “That’s why you see more guys speaking out and saying, ‘We don’t know what the consequences are, but I can’t let this happen to my brothers and sisters and cousins and my family.”

Gates added: “We have a platform.”

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The reality is that, for all the tension and disagreement, the demonstrations have empowered the locker room. “We’ve finally seen that players, when we’re unified and show solidarity, have power and have power over the owners,” said Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung.

How best to use this power is the question of the hour. How best to articulate complex, multilayered issues that range from police brutality to social and economic inequality to systemic, institutional racism? Kneeling? Praying? Locking arms?

Whatever the approach, the past few months have made it impossible for players to remain on the sideline, and that has been empowering.

“We’re paying attention to the bigger picture,” Okung said. “Some things are just bigger than football.”

Davis added: “A lot of time you just want to focus on the game and play football. Now we’re in a situation where you can’t sit still and be silent. Something has to happen because it’s at our doorstep.”

And will continue to be.

On Sunday in Indianapolis, several San Francisco 49ers players knelt during the playing of the national anthem, prompting Vice President Mike Pence, who was in attendance, to leave the game.

Owners ask what the players want. Will the kneeling stop if Kaepernick is signed?

“Players are protesting for a lot of different reasons,” Davis said. “Some are protesting because Kap is being blackballed, some are protesting because of issues within the community, some are protesting because they want to be part of the movement.”

Davis feels that Kaepernick should be signed and should be playing. He also feels the situation has become larger than one player and the issues he has raised.

The undeniable truth is that a social movement led by black professional athletes has the attention of fans, owners and the president.

At the moment of truth, there are many very good moves, but only one great move.

What’s the great move?

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.