Analysis: Few good options for NFL owners on player protests
The controversy over NFL players protesting during the national anthem isn’t going away, despite — or perhaps because of — team owners’ efforts to stop players from using the forum to speak out on political causes.
The league’s attempt to turn responsibility for disciplining protesters over to individual teams backfired Thursday when the Miami Dolphins tried to categorize raising a fist or kneeling during the anthem as “conduct detrimental to the club.” That gave them the right to punish a player with a fine or up to a four-game suspension — one game more than Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston got when he was accused of groping an Uber driver.
Hours after The Associated Press reported on Miami’s rules, the NFL and the players union issued a joint statement saying they were putting any anthem conduct policy on hold to see if they could come up with a compromise. But the owners aren’t left with many good ways to defuse the controversy — especially with President Donald Trump fanning the flames by subtweeting Commissioner Roger Goodell on Friday: “The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand.”
Here’s a look at some of the options:
LEAVE IT TO THE TEAMS
The Plan: The league’s solution, which the NFL Players Association challenged, was to allow each team to determine whether to punish its own players for protesting during the anthem. The policy adopted in May subjected clubs to fines and required players to stand if they are on the field during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” though players could choose to stay in the locker room.
This would have given hard-line owners in conservative regions a chance to clamp down while allowing teams in more liberal areas to let their players speak more freely. (Trump called for a season-long suspension for a second violation, a penalty that would violate the collective bargaining agreement.)
But the league quickly backed off after the Dolphins’ rules leaked.
The Winners: None. With players punished in some cities and protesting freely in others, there would always be plenty to complain about for those inclined to do so. And everyone seems inclined to do so these days.
The Losers: NFL owners. Any punishment would be destined to divide the locker room and the fandom; should a team actually suspend a significant contributor, it would only be hurting itself. And the guarantee of unequal treatment between and within teams would surely keep the issue in the news for yet another season.
GO BACK TO THE OLD WAY
The Plan: Ask players to stand at attention during the national anthem, and hope they do.
The Winners: Players, who would retain the ability to call attention to causes they believe in, namely racial inequality and police brutality . And Trump, who gets applause any time he attacks the protesting players as he stumps for Republicans in the November midterm elections.
The Losers: NFL owners, or at least those like Houston’s Bob McNair who have chafed at the notion of the “inmates running the prison.” They would lose control and remain a subject of Trump’s ridicule.
KEEP PLAYERS IN THE LOCKER ROOM DURING THE ANTHEM
The Plan: Players can’t protest during the anthem if they aren’t on the field during the anthem. Or so the theory goes. But the demonstrations were never about the anthem itself. They started as a way for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest racial inequality and expanded into a leaguewide us-vs.-them after Trump hollered at one rally: “Get that son of a bitch off the field.”
The Winners: Fans who were triggered by the sight of players kneeling during the song. And players, who could surely find another forum for their protests.
The Losers: NFL owners. The president has already said this isn’t patriotic enough for him, so there’s little hope of him easing up on his criticism. And it would cost them the connection to the flag and country they have worked hard to cultivate.
The Plan: Other sports worked with their players so that they didn’t have to protest to be heard. Maybe the owners make a donation to the players’ pet projects, play a video on the scoreboard, or otherwise give them a forum for their concerns.
The Winners: Players. It’s not about the protest, it’s about the cause.
The Losers: NFL owners. Even if they could stomach the loss of control, the political intrusion on the sport is bound to alienate some fans.
STOP PLAYING THE ANTHEM BEFORE GAMES
The Plan: Join almost every other country in the world and skip the forced display of patriotism that demands players stand at attention while fans check their phones, finish their hot dogs or visit the bathroom. If teams want to honor the military or local first-responders, let them do so — free from marketing deals.
The Winners: Fans who don’t consider the anthem an integral part of the sports experience, giving them another 90 seconds to spend in game-day traffic without missing anything.
The Losers. NFL owners. Concessionaires. And a whole generation of American Idol also-rans.
EDITORS NOTE: Jimmy Golen covers sports and the law for The Associated Press.