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NFL Spring League Meeting: Anthem, gambling, kickoffs on radar

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NFL owners will meet in Atlanta this week with plenty to discuss: new sports gambling legality, new ownership, new rules. And one old problem.

The topic of player protests during the national anthem is not listed on the meeting's official agenda, and there has been little discussion among owners and league officials leading up to the meeting. But the protests -- and the league's response to them -- are almost certain to generate considerable conversation anyway.

At issue: Does the league need a rule governing whether players can kneel during the national anthem after President Donald Trump harshly criticized players who knelt last season? The controversy lingered for much of the year, and owners heard from some fans furious over the protests -- and sponsors and advertisers nervous about the business impact -- even though the number of players who knelt declined by the end of the season as the league, after consultation with a coalition of players, pledged millions of dollars in support of social justice initiatives.

Even though several owners have indicated publicly they believe there must be some kind of resolution before the 2018 season starts, there has been little consensus among owners about what to do. While some owners -- most prominently Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert McNair of the Houston Texans -- have made it clear they want all players to stand during the national anthem, others are supportive of the players' right to protest, and still others are somewhere in between, reluctant to order players to stand but concerned about the fallout if the protests resume.

At least one owner believes the league is hesitant to create a sweeping rule of any kind because the controversy had quieted down, and there seems little good to be gained from provoking either the players or the president with an edict. Still, there are owners who are concerned about heading into a new season -- the next full owners' meeting is in October -- without a rule providing guidance, fearing that the league could be left flat-footed if news events cause players to want to resume protests.

Among the compromise possibilities that could be considered: simply letting each team do what it wishes without a mandate from the league office. That, one owner conceded, is probably not a viable long-term solution, but it would allow teams to craft their own response -- perhaps asking players to stand for the anthem if they are on the sideline, but to remain in the locker room if they prefer not to stand.

Nothing else the owners discuss is likely to be fraught with as much tension, and among the more pleasant topics will be the awarding of future Super Bowls and drafts. The Supreme Court's recent decision that opened the door to legalized sports betting was widely expected and, while the league's official position was to urge the court to uphold the ban on sports betting, they are undoubtedly prepared to move forward -- and monetize -- as states prepare to change their laws. On Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement acknowledging that the league has "spent considerable time planning for the potential of broadly legalized sports gambling" and calling for Congress "to enact uniform standards for states that choose to legalize sports betting" that include protections for consumers while allowing for sports leagues to safeguard intellectual property, ensuring fans "have access to official, reliable league data" and supporting efforts of law enforcement to "protect our fans and penalize bad actors."

David Tepper, the Miami-based hedge fund manager, is expected to sail through a vote approving his purchase of the Carolina Panthers, although the sale will not officially close until July. Tepper, who owns a small stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers (which he must sell), was viewed as the preferred candidate all along because, while he was not the high bidder, he has the personal wealth to pay cash -- in excess of $2.2 billion -- and he had already been vetted by the league when he joined the Steelers. The sale also extricates the league from its relationship with the Panthers' founding owner, Jerry Richardson, who remains under investigation following allegations of workplace misconduct.

And in the most important on-field changes, owners are expected to approve changes to the kickoff and to allow the use of replay for any ejection, including those that come as the result of the new rule prohibiting players anywhere on the field from lowering their heads and initiating contact with their helmets. Significant changes are being made to the kickoff, including eliminating the running start for the kicking team and disallowing all wedges, and mandating that at least eight players from the return team must be in a 15-yard "set-up zone" prior to the kickoff, with the expectation that keeping so many players near the kick will reduce the speed and space on the play. The kickoff is by far the most dangerous play in the game, and league officials have made clear that if these changes do not reduce the number of injuries, particularly head injuries, suffered on kickoffs, more changes -- and even the potential elimination of the kickoff entirely -- could be coming.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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