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At high-stakes meeting, NFL owners seek a compromise with players over protests during anthem

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The controversy over the protests over police brutality and systemic racism during the national anthem at NFL games is about to come to a head.

Before the NFL’s annual Fall League Meeting on Tuesday, executives, owners, NFL Players Association representatives, and select players will meet to discuss the ongoing protests — which began last year when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn’t stand for the national anthem.

A new round of protests were reignited a few weeks ago when President Donald Trump began publicly advocating for protesters to be fired, and it doesn’t seem Trump’s public complaints about the anthem will go away soon — he knows that criticizing the protests captures headlines and panders to its base.

Since September 22, when Trump said that any NFL player who takes a knee during the anthem is a “son of a bitch,” the president has tweeted about the protests during the national anthem a staggering 29 times. Vice President Mike Pence even went to an Indianapolis Colts game for the express purpose of walking out during the national anthem when players took a knee.

This is a problem for the league, and it’s not going away. While the protests have dwindled since the week after Trump’s comments, they’re not stopping. Headed into Tuesday’s meeting, the stakes are incredibly high for everyone.

Both sides are feeling the pressure

Right now, nobody is happy. Some fans are boycotting the NFL because players are taking a knee or remaining seated during the anthem. Other fans boycotting the league because Kaepernick is still unemployed, apparently shut out of the NFL after initiating a wave of protests.

“This could be a seminal moment for the tenure of commissioner Roger Goodell,” the Monday Morning Quarterback‘s Peter King wrote ahead of the meetings.

No matter what happens, it’s unlikely that Goodell will lose his job. But after a few tough years, the protests seems to have increased the strain between Goodell and some owners, with high-profile battles between his former allies, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

“This is their one shot to make some change.”

Some owners, like Jones, have publicly said that players will lose their spot on the team if they protest; others, like 49ers owner Jed York, have been supportive of their players’ right to protest. And King reports that some owners are concerned that Goodell may give into Trump’s bullying by agreeing to change NFL rules to require players to stand during the anthem — which would set a very dangerous precedent.

This is also a seminal moment for NFL players, according to Lou Moore, professor of history at Grand Valley State University and author of We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.

“There’s an opportunity to get things done, and this is their one shot to make some change,” Moore told ThinkProgress. Unless Kaepernick’s collusion lawsuit is successful, this is the most power the players will have until their current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is renegotiated in 2021.

The NFL just wants this all to go away

Ultimately, NFL officials want this controversy to go away so they don’t have to deal with it anymore. Thanks to President Trump’s focus on the protests, that would require the players to stop kneeling during the anthem.

There is no NFL rule that specifically lays out punishment if a player doesn’t stand for the national anthem, and most reports indicate that Goodell isn’t inclined to put such a rule on the books right now.

Instead, Goodell seems to hope that if he and the owners can showcase enough commitment to players’ social activism, then the players may choose to stop kneeling on their own.

Goodell has been talking with players occasionally since the summer about how to better support issues they care passionately about, such as systemic racism. On Monday, a league spokesman said the NFL would formally endorse the Grassley-Durbin criminal justice reform bill, a bipartisan bill that aims to “recalibrate prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, target violent and career criminals, and save taxpayer dollars,” as well as provide assistance to inmates who are reentering society.

But at times the players and the NFLPA have questioned the league’s commitment to open dialogue, citing last-minute invitations to meetings with owners and lack of follow through. In order to change that narrative, Goodell needs to go into Tuesday’s meeting looking to prove that the league really and truly cares about social justice.

The NFL players’ union is notoriously weak

Because of the NFL’s apparent desire to compromise, it might seem like NFL players are in control headed into Tuesday’s meeting. But that’s not entirely the case. NFL players don’t have a strong history of labor rights compared to their pro sports counterparts.

The 2011 CBA, which is in effect until 2021, has been referred to as “the worst CBA in professional sports history.” It decreased the amount of net league revenues from 59 percent to 47 percent, and according to some estimates, will transfer $10-15 billion from players to owners over the 10-year duration of the contract. It also locks rookies into a tight rookie wage scale and three-year renegotiating wait period, while deterring teams from signing veterans due to hefty minimum salaries.

Why would the NFLPA agree to such a weak deal? Some blame NFLPA President DeMaurice Smith (and criticism of Smith’s leadership is certainly warranted). But the truth is, it is a nearly impossible task to get all NFL players on the same page about anything, particularly labor issues.

There are 52 players on each NFL team — meaning there are 1,664 active players in the NFL, not counting those on injured reserve, practice squad players, and free agents. The vast majority of these players aren’t stars. They play in camouflaging helmets and pads, and only play 16 games each regular season — that’s not a lot of screen time. The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years.

Since seasons are so short, contracts aren’t guaranteed, rosters are so large, and careers are so fleeting, the players are far less likely to strike. The owners know that — and exploit it at every turn.

It’s time for the NFL players to exercise their power

Since Trump’s unprecedented attack on their rights and employment status, Moore has seen NFL players begin to recognize their collective power. He saw proof of that in the protests that erupted in Week 4, and he was encouraged last week when San Diego Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung wrote an open letter in the Players’ Tribune, pleading for all NFL players to come together and get organized.

“The moment Trump opened his mouth, the NFL players got on the same page,” Moore said. “The owners saw that.”

Many players have expressed interest in stopping the protests if the NFL can show enough of a commitment to supporting players’ activism and causes that address racial injustices. According to The Undefeated, 49ers safety Eric Reid, who has been involved in the protests since early on with Kaepernick, hopes that on Tuesday, the league “will be progressive and utilize [its] platform to bring awareness to these issues for us so we don’t have to protest anymore. That would be the ultimate goal for me going into the meetings.”

“Today’s fight for protests during the national anthem is tomorrow’s protest for guaranteed contracts.”

But, while any progress from the league is notable, players need to be very careful not to compromise too much. Trump and his cohorts on Fox News have worked hard to reframe the meaning of the protests from ending racism to hating the military. If the players give up their rights to show signs of protest during the national anthem, they are essentially letting that narrative win — all while permitting the NFL to have even more control over their freedom of expression than it already does.

Plus, Moore says it’s important for the players to remember that this isn’t just about the protests during the national anthem; it’s about the civil rights labor movements that allowed them to have their current positions of privilege, and it’s about the solidarity they will need in the future if they want to end up with a better CBA in 2021.

“Today’s fight for protests during the national anthem is tomorrow’s protest for guaranteed contracts,” Moore said. “You can’t compromise on your rights.”

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