NFL looks to defuse ten­sions

USA TODAY International Edition - - USA TODAY SPORTS - Nancy Ar­mour nar­mour@us­ato­day.com USA TO­DAY Sports FOL­LOW COLUM­NIST NANCY AR­MOUR @nrar­mour for com­men­tary and in­sight on the lat­est in sports.

The days of NFL play­ers protest­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them are num­bered.

That much is ob­vi­ous af­ter Roger Good­ell’s let­ter to own­ers Tues­day and com­ments made by league spokesman Joe Lock­hart. At­tempts to repack­age the protests as a fan-friendly call for “unity” have failed, and Pres­i­dent Trump will con­tinue his rants against the league as long as they in­flame di­vi­sion and de­tract from his own fail­ures and in­ac­tion.

So the NFL is look­ing for a way out. Des­per­ately.

“The con­tro­versy over the an­them is a bar­rier to hav­ing hon­est con­ver­sa­tions and mak­ing real progress on the un­der­ly­ing is­sues,” Good­ell wrote. “Every­one in­volved in the game needs to come to­gether on a path for­ward to con­tinue to be a force for good within our com­mu­ni­ties, pro­tect the game, and pre­serve our re­la­tion­ship with fans through­out the coun­try.”

The own­ers are meet­ing in New York next Tues­day, and, while Lock­hart said noth­ing spe­cific has been pro­posed, what to do about the protests will be on the agenda.

Lock­hart wouldn’t get drawn into what the own­ers might seek, say­ing he’s sure there will be a “va­ri­ety of op­tions.” That could be from ban­ning play­ers who demon­strate to keep­ing teams in the locker rooms un­til af­ter the an­them is over, as was the pol­icy un­til 2009.

“We need to move past this con­tro­versy,” Good­ell wrote, “and we want to do that to­gether with our play­ers.”

That’s where it gets sticky. Good­ell and Lock­hart can talk all they want about the “un­prece­dented di­a­logue” be­tween the league and its play­ers and tout the ride-alongs with police. But the play­ers re­main skep­ti­cal about whether the NFL cares or just wants them to stick to sports like good lit­tle foot­ball play­ers.

“Re­ally bruh? It’s hard try­ing to play both sides of the fence when it comes down to in­jus­tice and your money huh?” Pack­ers tight end Martel­lus Ben­nett said, ad­dress­ing Good­ell on Twit­ter.

The is­sues that sparked the protests — police bru­tal­ity against men of color and ra­cial in­equal­ity — are of real and se­ri­ous con­cern to play­ers. But aside from the 49ers, the NFL and its teams were largely silent un­til Trump last month called the play­ers in­volved “SOBs” and said they should be fired.

That was more than a year af­ter the protests be­gan.

“Savvy view­ers of the NFL’s ‘unity’ ef­forts could see that own­ers were not protest­ing the same thing that many play­ers were protest­ing. (Colin) Kaeper­nick and other play­ers protested police bru­tal­ity and ra­cial in­jus­tice; own­ers protested Pres­i­dent Trump mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult for them to use black play­ers to make money,” Glenn Bracey, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Vil­lanova who spe­cial­izes in racism and so­cial move­ments, said via email.

“In any case, Pres­i­dent Trump and NFL own­ers’ ac­tions brought more attention to the core is­sue, which is racist polic­ing.”

It’s true a small frac­tion of play­ers in the NFL have protested. But aware­ness and sup­port for the cause has grown this sea­son, and play­ers aren’t likely to take too kindly to sim­ply be­ing told to stand up and shut up.

“Good­ell will­fully ob­scures the ac­tual is­sue, which is racist polic­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion, by dis­cussing the protests as ‘the con­tro­versy over the na­tional an­them,’ ” Bracey said. “Fur­ther, he im­plies that play­ers’ protests are ac­tu­ally a prob­lem, im­ply­ing the protests pre­vent ‘mak­ing real progress on the un­der­ly­ing is­sues.’ ”

If the NFL wants to defuse the ten­sion and put the fo­cus back on foot­ball — and it most cer­tainly does — it’s go­ing to take more than an edict. It will have to find a way to make it worth the play­ers’ while, make them feel they’ve ac­com­plished their goals or have a com­pa­ra­ble plat­form by which to do so.

The protests aren’t about the an­them or the flag. They never have been. The NFL needs to rec­og­nize that now more than ever.

PA­TRICK GORSKI, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

NFL own­ers will ad­dress so­cial protests and the an­them.

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