The letters and emails have poured into team offices -- angry ones, some from military veterans -- and then there are the boxes of returned team merchandise and tickets and the worried calls from local sponsors about what they are hearing from their own customers. In the three weeks since the president first attacked NFL players who have protested racial inequality and injustice by not standing for the national anthem before games -- it has felt much longer to practically everyone in the league -- the controversy has overwhelmed virtually everything else this season.
On Tuesday, before a regularly-scheduled meeting of the league's owners in New York, players, their union's leaders and owners will gather to try to find a way to move on. Players have been meeting with a handful of owners and league executives since August, discussing ways the league could support players' efforts on social issues. But while a joint statement released last week by the league and the union emphasized that there has been no change to the league's current policy, which does not require players to stand for the anthem, the hope for this meeting is that players and owners might at least move toward a solution that will bring most of the protests to an end, while also advancing the players' goals.
In a memo sent to teams last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league had been working on a plan after many discussions with players and owners, and he said the league wants players to stand for the anthem.
"Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem," Goodell wrote. "It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players."
In earlier meetings, owners have told players they fear the players' message of seeking justice for racial inequality is not getting through, because so many fans misinterpret their protest as disrespect for the flag and the military. They have tried to brainstorm ways to take action that would help the players reach their goals -- financially supporting programs that players and the league identify that address some of the underlying issues, supporting legislation aimed at addressing some of the inequality (NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said Monday the league would endorse a criminal justice reform bill in Congress) or bankrolling marketing campaigns focused on social injustice -- and as the owners' meeting grew closer, there was some optimism that players and the league would find common ground.
Among owners, there is a belief that most players -- and all the owners -- want to move past the protests, so that the focus can return to the issues, particularly because some of the players who have knelt during the national anthem in recent weeks have done it largely as a response to the president's remarks. Owners feel the league simply can't continue with the current situation, because it is angering too many people. Still, there is real uncertainty about how to resolve the controversy. Is an official change to the rules necessary, or could there be a less formal agreement? Would it be OK if players raise a fist during the anthem? And if there was an agreement that led to players no longer protesting, how would it be enforced -- would there be fines for players who continue to protest?
The topic is so sensitive that even among owners, there are disagreements. Several indicated last week that while owners are united in hoping the protests stop, there is no unanimity about how they get there. Several are upset with Jerry Jones for taking a very public hardline stand that he would bench any player who does not stand for the anthem. Other owners have advocated that the anthem should be played while teams are still in the locker room. And still others worry about capitulating to the president's demands at all.
One owner said last week he had never dealt with anything like the controversy over the protests. Whatever happens this week, the NFL hopes it won't have to deal with it much longer.