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Monday, Dec 11, 2017
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NFL owners' unity with players might be short-lived

The image was striking — several owners of NFL teams locking arms with their players on the sidelines Sunday, and the Cowboys' Jerry Jones on Monday night, in a dramatic statement of defiance to a president who ridiculed their sport and condemned players for refusing to stand during the national anthem as a protest against racism.

Beyond the appearance of unity, though, is a far different reality: The owners have done little to support players who protest to fight social injustice. A few owners have told their players that kneeling for the anthem is inappropriate.

The owners by and large are a white, conservative group of billionaires, several of them big-dollar donors to President Donald Trump. They have generally discouraged their players, about three-quarters of whom are African-American, from anything that overshadows throwing passes and making tackles.

These are the same owners who allowed junk science produced by league-sponsored doctors to paper over the growing scientific consensus that repeated head hits are linked to long-term brain damage. They have warred repeatedly, aggressively and publicly with players over labor issues.

And as for Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who inspired the anthem protests by kneeling in order to raise awareness about racial oppression and police brutality toward African-Americans, no owner has deemed him worthy of job, despite widespread handicapping that, while not in his prime, he certainly still is of a caliber to play.

It is certainly true that some owners, most notably Arthur M. Blank of the Atlanta Falcons and Stephen M. Ross of the Miami Dolphins, have tried through charitable work to address the many thorny problems around racism, poverty and policing. But it took a rebuke from Trump to compel many of them to choose between remaining silent or publicly siding with the players.

And the public demonstration of unity and support may be short-lived.

While it is too early to know if the protests will continue, and in what form, Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and on Sunday the first owner to be seen linking arms with his players on the sidelines, has said he would not continue the practice in the coming weeks.

"I'm not a crusader, but this was a Rosa Parks moment for the Jaguars," he said. "I do not plan any future sideline appearances."

The owners' decision to go with the players at least this time struck some as a fallback to protecting the league brand, embodied in its ubiquitous shield emblem with the American flag motif.

"This issue is about protecting the shield," said Andy Dolich, a former NFL team executive. "There's a subliminal dollar sign in that shield, so it is fair to be cynical" about the owners' motives.

League executives, however, said they had minimal involvement in the owners' or players' actions.

On Saturday, commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement condemning the president's remarks. Several clubs then contacted the league to find out what, if anything, other teams were doing to follow up, while players across the league consulted one another on what to do.

"There was a lot of sharing and the league was kind of a clearinghouse," said Joe Lockhart, an NFL spokesman.

Nearly all 32 teams released statements, but most of the owners have not commented further. Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer has released a statement in support of the players' peaceful protests.

The owners, stewards of a $14 billion league, the richest and most powerful in the United States, have tried to tread carefully. They did not ask for this moment in the political spotlight and seem in a hurry to leave it.

"Football and politics don't mix easily," the Cincinnati Bengals, whose owner is Mike Brown, said in a statement Monday. "Fans come to NFL games to watch great competition on the playing field and that's where our focus should be."

While some of the owners said they support the players' right to speak out, they also worry about a backlash and recognize that many spectators object to protests during the national anthem.

"At this point, I want to get away from politics and if they are going to continue protest, then I don't need to spend my money there," said Brandon Gill, a Realtor from Jacksonville who is considering giving up his Jaguars season tickets. "Frankly, I'm just tired of it all."

A state legislator in Louisiana, Kenneth Havard, a Republican, said he wants to take away millions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks that the New Orleans Saints and the NFL receive because they have allowed players to protest during the national anthem.

"Disrespecting our national anthem and flag in the name of social injustice is the highest form of hypocrisy," Havard said in a statement. "It is time the taxpayers quit subsidizing protest on big boy playgrounds. I believe in the right to protest but not at a taxpayer subsidized sporting event."

Then again, with calls for boycotts of the NFL over Kaepernick's not being hired, it is fair to say objections are coming from the right and left.

NFL owners are nothing if not businessmen, so until attendance declines precipitously, or it can be determined that the protests have directly led to a decline in television ratings, they are unlikely to clamp down on the protests. Indeed, the league got a pat on the back Monday when Ford and Nike, two big NFL sponsors, issued statements backing the players' right to protest.

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