If NFL own­ers are wor­ried that protests put them in a tough spot, they owe it to the play­ers to lis­ten.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - JERRY BREWER

The NFL is un­com­fort­able, huh? Good. The own­ers — many of whom locked arms with their play­ers two weeks ago af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump ver­bally spat on the league — are ea­ger once again to make the player protests, the con­tro­ver­sies and the po­ten­tial for money-suck­ing backlash dis­ap­pear. Soon, they’ll be beg­ging Plu­tus, the Greek god of wealth, to in­ter­vene.

It takes an abun­dance of moral cow­ardice to run a sport that ex­pects to gen­er­ate $14 bil­lion in rev­enue this sea­son. The NFL doesn’t care enough about its play­ers’ brains, so so­cial in­jus­tice is re­ally low on the list of con­cerns. A cen­tury ago, politi­cian Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan ex­pressed his be­lief that “no one can earn a mil­lion dol­lars hon­estly.” His words sound like Dr. Evil’s ran­som de­mand in the “Austin Pow­ers” movies now. How do you earn $14 bil­lion? By car­ing about ab­so­lutely noth­ing but the dolla dolla bill, y’all.

So cries for equal­ity are a threat, and it’s no longer as sim­ple as get­ting rid of Colin Kaeper­nick and his Afro. In Week 3, the NFL re­sponded to Trump with his­toric au­dac­ity, and it turned out to be a pow­er­ful state­ment about unity — though it lacked uni­for­mity of be­liefs and pur­pose — in the face of a vul­gar and un­con­cerned pres­i­dent who wanted to ac­ti­vate his most cal­lous and prej­u­diced sup­port­ers. On that Sun­day two weeks ago, the NFL tri­umphed be­cause of its re­fusal to be in­tim­i­dated by a leader call­ing for protest­ing play­ers to be fired and la­bel­ing each one a “son of a bitch,” and in do­ing so, it showed a will­ing­ness to em­brace Amer­ica for ev­ery com­pli­cated thing it is.

It was a grand ges­ture for a day, for a foot­ball week­end, but the con­se­quences have be­come clear: The orig­i­nal in­tent of protest­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them, which is to high­light racial in­jus­tice and un­equal polic­ing, suf­fered some di­lu­tion. Trump did what he of­ten does: oblit­er­ate a nec­es­sar­ily nu­anced dis­cus­sion and turn it into over­sim­pli­fied non­sense, this time about pa­tri­o­tism. He forced the league to take a stand on a po­lar­iz­ing is­sue that it never wanted to take un­til he pro­voked ev­ery­one associated with it.

Win­ning the ini­tial bat­tle against the blath­erer-in-chief was sim­ple. But it meant en­ter­ing a cul­ture war that is al­most im­pos­si­ble to es­cape. NFL Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell and the own­ers he rep­re­sents clearly want out. So they’re ne­go­ti­at­ing with the play­ers to fig­ure out how to de­politi­cize the game. The prob­lem is, this isn’t a busi­ness deal, even though threats of boy­cotting the NFL could af­fect the league’s bot­tom line. There’s no price tied to free­dom of ex­pres­sion. There’s no easy way to re­spect in­di­vid­u­al­ity and re­main com­pas­sion­ate about hu­man­ity while, mo­ti­vated by greed, try­ing to en­act pol­icy that qui­ets a player’s voice. It’s even more dif­fi­cult when, just two weeks ago, the own­ers em­pow­ered the play­ers by be­ing par­tic­i­pants.

It’s mind-bog­gling that the NFL didn’t al­ready have an an­them con­duct pol­icy in place. The most con­trol­ling league in Amer­i­can pro sports left that de­tail open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. The NBA, which is sup­pos­edly this pro­gres­sive, player-driven league, has clear rules about stand­ing for the an­them, and Com­mis­sioner Adam Sil­ver re­cently re­minded his play­ers of the pol­icy. It’s ac­cepted that it’s bad for en­tire busi­nesses to protest, which is why the act was un­prece­dented un­til now. The dif­fer­ence with the NBA is that it has a bet­ter his­tory of open di­a­logue and sin­cere con­cern for its play­ers.

The no­tion that an NFL player is dis­pos­able dom­i­nates the league, from the way nonguar­an­teed con­tracts are struc­tured to how the “next man up” cliche rolls off tongues the minute a player is in­jured. The NBA isn’t with­out its com­pli­ca­tions and in­stances of la­bor strife, but the im­pact a star player can have on a bas­ket­ball game long has been re­spected. As a re­sult, in­di­vid­u­al­ity isn’t dis­torted in some lame con­cept of team. The NBA player feels more like the part­ner that he is.

The NFL is say­ing to its play­ers, “Let’s all get on the same page.” But ev­ery­one wasn’t on the same page even when the league’s Week 3 ac­tions were in­tended to ex­em­plify unity. There is no same page. It’s in­con­ve­nient for a league that doesn’t want to of­fend large con­stituen­cies that pay good money to watch foot­ball live or on tele­vi­sion, but the own­ers should have known it was com­ing be­fore they locked arms with their play­ers. And the NFL should be very care­ful about mak­ing paci­fy­ing de­ci­sions, es­pe­cially when the is­sues are so po­lar­iz­ing. Some­one will be of­fended re­gard­less of the league’s ac­tions.

The fo­cus should be hav­ing more hon­est di­a­logue with the play­ers and com­ing up with real so­lu­tions that can im­pact ev­ery NFL city. The own­ers shouldn’t just be in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing dol­lars; they should put some real money into sup­port­ing pro­grams that ad­vo­cate for equal­ity. They should use their power to unite to form al­le­giances and com­mis­sions on race re­la­tions. They should fol­low the blue­print of some of the league’s most so­cially con­scious play­ers and bring their ef­forts to ev­ery NFL city.

The play­ers shouldn’t be ready to ne­go­ti­ate and agree upon an an­them pol­icy un­til the own­ers are more con­cerned about lis­ten­ing. It might take a while be­fore the play­ers think they have enough com­pas­sion­ate ears, and you know what? That’s okay. The NFL won’t burn down in the mean­time. Some peo­ple want to scru­ti­nize ev­ery week of tele­vi­sion rat­ings and point out ev­ery boo di­rected to­ward a kneel­ing player and de­clare that the NFL is dy­ing. A $14 bil­lion sport won’t die that quickly.

For those who think the NFL is show­ing signs of strug­gle merely be­cause of backlash to player protests, have you not paid at­ten­tion to the league’s con­cus­sion cri­sis over the past decade? Have you not re­al­ized the qual­ity of play has been de­clin­ing for quite some time? Do you not re­call the league’s on­go­ing is­sues with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and its vul­ner­a­bil­ity to the opi­oid epi­demic? If the NFL suf­fers pro­longed dam­age to its pop­u­lar­ity, it will be for many fac­tors, and it will be de­served. Player protests are among the most divisive con­cerns, and that’s why the own­ers are re­act­ing with such ur­gency and worry. And if this is the is­sue that makes us see the league as fright­en­ingly flawed, so be it. But don’t pro­claim the cause of death be­fore the death cer­tifi­cate is printed.

NFL play­ers have some­thing more valu­able than Matthew Stafford’s con­tract right now, some­thing they have wanted for quite some time. They have at­ten­tion. And they have lever­age over the own­ers on one key is­sue. They won’t re­lin­quish any of that with­out sin­cere and fruit­ful con­ver­sa­tions with the own­ers.

We of­ten un­der­es­ti­mate how much courage it takes to stand up for what you be­lieve in, es­pe­cially when you’re go­ing against thou­sands of peo­ple who dis­agree in a sta­dium in which peo­ple are free to drink, re­act harshly and drink some more. Most pro­test­ers don’t wake up look­ing for ways to in­vite ridicule. They just want their con­cerns to be heard. When oth­ers lis­ten, there’s noth­ing to protest any­more.

No mat­ter how NFL own­ers earned their money, there’s just one way to pro­tect it this time: hon­estly, and with the play­ers do­ing most of the talk­ing. Lis­ten up, rich peo­ple. The lan­guage prom­ises to be a lit­tle cleaner than what the pres­i­dent uses.


Pres­i­dent Trump’s com­ments about na­tional an­them protests put the NFL in a del­i­cate po­si­tion.

Jerry Brewer

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