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NFL players, owners and union have rare chance to move beyond protests

Michael Bennett and Malcolm Jenkins need to be part of these negotiations

In a rare gesture of reconciliation and potential compromise, National Football League owners have invited the NFL Players Association’s executive director and certain players to meet Tuesday in New York at the annual owners meeting.

Such an invitation is rarely extended, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

NFL owners are desperate to find a way to end the player protests that have continued, despite the inflammatory, mostly-for-show rhetoric by the likes of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has threatened to bench any player who protests during the playing of the national anthem.

The owners know they can’t carry out that kind of threat if players act in unison, and so does Jones, who made the threat knowing that the Cowboys had a bye week on Sunday and that he had time, beginning Tuesday, to work out a compromise.

Hopefully, Tuesday’s talks will get beyond bluster and self-interest. This is not your typical contractual negotiation.

“This is bigger than that,” said Baltimore Ravens veteran tight end Ben Watson. I spoke with Watson on Sunday after the Ravens lost in overtime to the Chicago Bears. “This is about people. As owners and players, we care about people.”

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Bill Rhoden and the Rhoden Fellows talking to Marine veteran and Bears fan Ron Terrell about the National Anthem protests and what disrespecting the flag looks like to a former soldier.

Watson is the author of Under My Skin, a book he wrote in response to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Like a number of players, Watson is frustrated that the original issues raised by Colin Kaepernick have been turned inside out as a protest against a piece of cloth, the flag, and a song, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“It’s not that at all. We’re not trying to disrespect anything,” he said. “I think if this is handled correctly in 10 or 15 years, people will look back and understand what all of this was about.” He added, “At the end of the day, you’re talking about changing what’s in people’s heart.”

NFL owners are being squeezed by some segments of their largely white fan base who have threatened to stop, and in some cases have stopped attending games because of the protests. Owners are also being confronted by a group of determined millennial players who feel so strongly about the issues of social justice and police brutality that they are willing to alienate fans and incur the wrath of owners to call attention to an issue that has plagued many of their respective communities for decades.

The owners also realize that the threats and intimidation tactics that worked on previous generations of athletes may have the opposite effect on a core group of players who are being driven by issues of conscience.

On Sunday, seven members of the San Francisco 49ers knelt during the national anthem while the rest of the team stood and locked arms. In Miami, most of the players stood for the national anthem, but three Dolphins players — Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas — either stood in the tunnel or remained in the locker room.

This is an important, perhaps defining, moment for NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, 53, who succeeded Gene Upshaw as executive director in 2009.

The original message of Kaepernick’s protest, social justice and police brutality, has been wrongly spun into being a protest against the American flag and the national anthem. Smith’s challenge is to clearly articulate the reasons for the players’ protests, lay out a plan of action and provide a vision for the players that can be achieved if they unite.

In the matter of Kaepernick, the NFLPA has been slow to react and slow to recognize this as a labor issue and has chosen to follow rather than lead. This might be why Kaepernick has chosen to work outside of the union in his fight to resume his employment in the NFL. Last week, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, charging collusion, among other things.

That battle will take on a life of its own and will surely become another distraction that could potentially detract from the primary issues that Kaepernick called attention to: social justice and police violence directed against African-Americans. It really is up to the NFLPA to keep the players focused on the issues at hand, not on the various sideshows.

Last year in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray death, the Justice Department released a scathing report about the Baltimore Police Department, writing among other things that the Justice Department found “reasonable cause to believe that the BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the constitution or Federal law.”

The report found that while Baltimore is 63 percent black, 91 percent of those arrested for discretionary offenses such as “failure to obey” and trespassing were African-American. While 60 percent of drivers were black, they made up 82 percent of traffic stops.

Gray died in April 2015 after he was arrested by Baltimore police for possessing an illegal (under Baltimore statute) switchblade. Gray died in police custody.

What can the NFL do to help restore confidence and trust among the three entities that have a major NFL presence: fans, law enforcement and players, many of whom come from communities where there has been friction with law enforcement?

These questions and others hopefully will be the substance of Tuesday’s meeting. The primary question is not what can be done to stop the player protests, but rather how can the league facilitate a better understanding between players and fans about these deep-seated issues. How can the league work with players to establish a better relationship between players and law enforcement, between officers and the communities they serve?

“Collectively, among the players, it’s not a thing where, ‘If you do this, then we’re going to do this,’ ” Watson said. “It’s an evolving conversation. It’s not as easy as saying we want these few things, and that’s it. Who knows what the ceiling is and who knows what the floor is?”

The players will likely form a player-led committee to lead whatever initiatives come out of Tuesday’s meeting. The committee should be anchored by players who have consistently protested and spoken out on the social justice issue.

The committee should be multiethnic and composed of men and women, but the core group should be Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles, Stills of the Miami Dolphins, Michael Bennett and Doug Baldwin of the Seattle Seahawks, and Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Can players speak with one voice? Will they be able to agree on a groundbreaking, well-funded initiative that can make an impact, one that gets to the heart of economic, educational and judicial inequity?

“There are so many elements to this,” Watson said. “A lot of guys have different interests. There’s legislation. There’s bail reform. There’s certain educational initiatives. The great thing is that guys have a voice and guys are engaged. We want to do more than have a voice. We want to see positive results.”

There have been calls for Kaepernick to become more public, to articulate his position.

John Wooten, who helped Jim Brown organize the 1967 Cleveland Summit, recently said the time has come for Kaepernick to speak publicly. With all due respect to Wooten and the others, Kaepernick should continue doing what he has been doing, which includes keeping quiet.

Kaepernick made his statement last season when he began kneeling. Nothing he will say can be as profound as the movement he has ignited, and nothing will be more effective than how he has called attention to issues of injustice and police misconduct.

Tuesday’s meeting in New York among owners, union officials and players will be unique. The owners, typically, will discuss ways to keep their coffers overflowing. A key component of that discussion is addressing the issues being raised by many of their players about what is going on in the communities from which many of them come.

The owners should abandon the strategy of huffing and puffing and relying on intimidation to keep the players in their place. Instead, they might try to look deeply inside the issues being raised and work with players on what could be a unique and powerful initiative to begin to address those issues: social justice, police brutality.

“The good thing is that the owners are aware,” Watson said. “Whatever their motives are, something good can come out of this.”

Each side wants to end the protest, wants to get beyond the gestures and begin doing the work.

The players hate being booed by fans as much as the owners hate hearing complaints that they fear their players.

Owners and players should use Tuesday’s meeting in New York to find a graceful way out and forge a bold way forward.

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.