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New national anthem policy no longer expected to emerge at next week's NFL spring owners meeting

While NFL owners earlier this year confidently targeted their spring meeting as a deadline of sorts to reach a conclusion on the league’s policy on player protest during the national anthem, it now appears no final resolution to the controversial question is likely to be reached next week when the owners convene for two days in Atlanta, Ga., according to sources familiar with the league’s current thinking.

Describing the league’s ongoing debate about the way forward on the anthem policy as a game of “very multi-layered chess,’’ one source discounted the likelihood that owners would vote to approve a compromise approach that would allow each team to decide whether to require its players to stand for the anthem, a potential option the Washington Post reported had some support early this month.

“Just letting each team do what they want, that would be very unusual for  the league, and I can’t believe the sponsors are going to love that and I can’t believe the (TV) networks are going to love that,’’ said a source with insight into the thinking of NFL ownership. “Meanwhile the (players) union will file a grievance against it and they might win that. It seems unlikely that a solution is going to happen in Atlanta, based on the factions that still exist within the league.

“If I had to bet, I’d bet they come out of (next week) with no solution yet, knowing they don’t really have to decide until Sept. 6 (the start of Week 1 of the 2018 regular season).’’

Another potential solution that has been floated is to give the players the option of remaining in the locker room during the anthem, but requiring them to stand for it if they are on the sideline. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross gave his players such a choice for part of the 2017 season, but prior to the 2009 season, all players and coaches remained in the locker room until after the anthem was played.

But such a piecemeal option is thought to be an unsatisfactory solution to some owners as well, because of its possibility to still inflame and engage President Trump on the anthem issue, after he was so vociferously critical last fall of players who refused to stand for the anthem as a form of protest against various societal issues.

The league is acutely hesitant to take any step that might rile up Trump and allow him to re-seize on the issue as a ready-made way to play to his political base, giving him the chance to again frame the players’ protest as uniformly dishonoring the country. 

Despite the optimism expressed by several owners at the NFL’s annual meeting in Orlando in late March that a solution to the anthem debate would come in May, there still remains strong differences among various ownership camps in terms of how to deal with the player protests.

One faction is said to be led by owners such as Dallas’s Jerry Jones, Houston’s Bob McNair and Washington’s Daniel Snyder, who believe the players should be made to stand for the anthem and that it’s incumbent on the league to change its policy from encouraging such behavior to requiring it. Case closed.

Another group, which is thought to include Miami’s Ross, San Francisco’s Jed York and Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie, looks at the protest issue as a right the players have earned and hold due to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. For them the league would be wise to stay focused on the long term when it comes to the anthem issue, remembering that Trump won’t always be president and that trying to nullify the players’ right to freedom of expression is very likely to backfire, only further unifying them as a group in common cause against the league. That scenario could be especially problematic with what is expected to be a contentious new CBA negotiation looming after the 2020 season. 

Lastly there’s a group of owners who legitimately sympathize with the players in their efforts to use their protests to draw attention to societal causes and injustices, but are torn by the belief players are going about it in the wrong way and doing damage to the NFL brand and bottom line. They personally like the vast majority of their players and believe they are agents for positive change in their communities, but feel caught in the middle of a debate that has no real winners in their eyes.

“They feel like, we just don’t need this, we don’t need this hassle,’’ said the source with knowledge of ownership’s thinking, who put New York Giants owner John Mara, Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney and Chicago owner Michael McCaskey among this group. “Let’s make this go away. Just make it go away. Find something, some solution, that makes the topic go away.’’ 

Another option the league acknowledges is leaving the current anthem policy unchanged, allowing players to make their own choices, as they have done since the issue first surfaced with the decision of then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to stay seated on the bench during the playing of the anthem before 2016 preseason games. Kaepernick later started taking a knee on the sideline as the anthem played — in protest of the treatment of African-Americans in the United States — inspiring other players around the league to do so as well.

Based on the lack of a clear-cut consensus solution at the moment, the league is likely to continue to move slowly on the anthem issue, aware that the division of the various ownership factions, as well as Trump’s continued interest in the topic, aren’t likely to evaporate overnight. In addition, both Kaepernick and his ex-49ers teammate, safety Eric Reid, have pending grievance filings against the league, accusing teams of collusion in keeping them unsigned and off an NFL playing field. Navigating a solution to the anthem issue while those cases are ongoing could well raise the league’s degree of complexity.

“If you try to strong-arm the players, you might wind up uniting them like never before,’’ said a source with ties to team ownership. “You get an engaged, committed player like (former Patriots and current Eagles defensive lineman) Chris Long involved as the face of that kind of fight and it’s a very dangerous thing for the league (from a public relations standpoint), very dangerous.

“Unless the league has a rock-solid resolution, and it doesn’t seem like they have one, I don’t think they do anything (in Atlanta). They’ll just let it go for now and announce something in August or before the season starts. This is a league when it’s a complex issue and they don’t absolutely have to decide, they wait.’’

Among the other topics to be discussed at next week’s owners meeting include an anticipated vote — and approval — on the sale of the Carolina Panthers to current Steelers minority owner David Tepper, as well as further attempts to clarify and define the parameters of the league’s new rule against lowering the helmet to make contact

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