As new NFL season begins, national anthem controversy drags on with no clear solution
In May, the owners of the NFL's teams were gathered at a hotel in the Buckhead district of Atlanta. As a high-ranking official from one franchise made his way to a coffee break before the meetings began, he wondered what the group would do that week about the national anthem dilemma that had so vexed the league since President Donald Trump inflamed a national controversy last fall about players' protests during the anthem.
"What we can't do," the official said, "is get to next season and still be in this position."
However, with the opening of the 2018 season days away, that is exactly where the league finds itself. The revised anthem policy ratified by the owners at that May meeting, which amounted to an attempt to satisfy everyone that ended up satisfying almost no one, has been on hold since July as part of an agreement with the NFL Players Association. The league and union continue to attempt to reach a compromise on a mutually agreeable policy.
But that is considered unlikely to take place before the new season begins Thursday night in Philadelphia, leaving the NFL still in the position of trying to run its business amid a polarizing national debate over peaceful protest, race relations and patriotism.
Several of those familiar with the anthem deliberations said in recent days they don't expect a solution to be negotiated before the Eagles, the defending Super Bowl champions whose White House invitation was revoked by Trump last June, host the Atlanta Falcons in Thursday night's opener. That would require an unexpected last-minute breakthrough, they said, even though some people involved are still holding out a sliver of hope for an agreement in the coming days or weeks.
Owners want players to agree to stand for the anthem. The union has so far backed the players' right to protest. That leaves very little middle ground on the issue, and both the league and union must deal with factions within their ranks, complicating deliberations even further.
"I don't know if there's a solution there," said a person with knowledge of the issue, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the league and union have pledged to keep their talks confidential. "Even if the union asks some of these players to stand, their reaction might not be much different than if the league asked them."
Any compromise would likely have to involve an endorsement by the players of standing for the anthem, some within the sport speculate, perhaps in return for a concession by the owners on discipline for any player who still chooses to protest. But work remains to get to that point.
Players have said the protests, begun by quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he was with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, are about bringing attention to issues of racial inequality and police treatment of African-Americans, with no disrespect to the flag or the U.S. military intended. But others say that conducting the protests during the anthem is disrespectful to the flag and military, framing the issue as being one of patriotism.
Television ratings have sagged, for reasons that remain open to interpretation, while the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, have been faulted by many critics. That includes Trump and other politicians who have seized on the topic as a political issue.
Tony Dungy, the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said he believes the league "could do a much better job than they've done of working with the players and kind of embracing it and taking it away from the anthem itself and putting it on the issues."
Dungy, now an NFL studio analyst for NBC, added: "I think what (the players) want is a voice. I think they're trying to help their communities out. And I think the league and the players could do a much better job of working together and being that voice that does make things better."
Trump amplified the controversy last September when he said at a campaign rally that owners should fire any player who protests during the anthem, and has frequently returned to it as a political issue. As midterm elections near, the players' protests have become a point of contention in the Texas race for the U.S. Senate seat of Republican Ted Cruz, with Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke defending the players' right to protest and Cruz targeting those remarks in a campaign ad.
Trump has expanded his criticism recently, citing ESPN for saying that it does not intend to televise the anthem during its NFL game broadcasts. The network called that a decision to stick with its existing policy.
ESPN isn't alone. Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said at the network's recent media day for its NFL coverage that CBS does not intend to televise the anthem during its NFL game broadcasts except on "special occasions" such as military appreciation week, Thanksgiving, the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl. He added that CBS will "be flexible and cover any news when appropriate and when necessary," but said the network's research is that viewers say they are tuning in to watch a football game, without distractions or controversy.
The protests have been cited by some observers as a contributing factor to the NFL's TV ratings reportedly being down more than 9 percent during the 2017 regular season. But others within the industry point to factors affecting ratings for all programming, including the habits of younger viewers. The list of the highest-rated TV programs in 2017 still was dominated by NFL games and, according to McManus, ad sales remain strong.
The new season approaches with the league and owners facing a collusion grievance by Kaepernick, who was out of the league last season and remains unsigned by any team. The protests continued last season without Kaepernick, and owners at the time declined to change the existing anthem policy, which stated that players must be on the field during the playing of the national anthem, but didn't require them to stand. Instead, the owners focused on talks with a group of players, called the Players Coalition, that led to an agreement by which the league and teams are providing funding to players' social-justice initiatives. But a few players withdrew from that group amid the deliberations, saying it no longer spoke on their behalf.
The union was not at the forefront of those discussions, and after the owners approved the modified policy in May - which gave players the option of staying in the locker room during the anthem but required them to stand if on the field, empowering the league to fine a team for any protests and leaving the player discipline up to each franchise - the union filed a grievance and contemplated legal action. That was put on hold by the July standstill agreement.
Similar to the players, the owners haven't spoken with a single voice. Some owners, like the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Houston Texans' Robert McNair, have been adamant about players being required to stand for the anthem. Others have been sympathetic to the players' right to protest even while expressing a preference that players stand.
"The league could do nothing and hope it fades away," said a person familiar with the NFL's inner workings. "It's not at a fever pitch right now. Now, if some Cowboys player kneels and gets cut, the union would have to act ... I think the league has finally figured out that they boxed themselves into a corner on this. It's not going to change until Trump is out of office. You can ride it out and hope he doesn't get re-elected. If he gets re-elected, that's when you have to go to him on bended knee."
The NFL simply would like to extricate itself from the controversy and get fans back to focusing on the on-field product. An official with one team said recently that "everyone is tired of talking about it."
The preseason began with a few players, including Miami Dolphins teammates Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson and the Oakland Raiders' Marshawn Lynch, refusing to stand for the anthem, while others raised a fist or remained off the field.
"Let's see where it plays out," CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz said. "It seems to me - I don't keep stats on it - it seems to me this preseason, there have been fewer protests than there were last year. I might be wrong, but it sure doesn't seem like what it was last year."
The Washington Post's Rick Maese contributed to this report.