NEW YORK -- Against the backdrop of more critical presidential tweets, the NFL emerged from its Fall League Meeting with no mandate to force players to stand for the national anthem and a surprisingly progressive decision to support programs big and small to effect social change on the issues that spurred the original protests.
"I think most of us believe that attempting to force the players to do something that they don't want to do is not going to be effective in the long run," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said. "The better policy going forward is to try to have dialogue with them and try to show them that we're willing to work with them on some of these issues that all of us are concerned about. That's been my philosophy with my team, and I think almost every other owner feels the same."
"Listen, I know that our position is not the most popular position in the world. Most of the fans that have written to me, the overwhelming majority of them believe that we should be ordering the players to stand for the anthem and that's just not a position that I'm in favor of. And I think almost every other owner in the NFL feels the same way."
The most vocal outlier is Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who left the meetings without comment. He has said he will bench any player who does not stand for the national anthem and that he has been in communication with the White House. But after the owners spent part of Tuesday meeting with players about how the league can support their social justice initiatives, and the rest of the meeting talking among themselves, it seems clear that Jones, who Mara said talked at length during the meeting, has very limited support for that view. Mara said there was a conversation about whether a written rule mandating that players stand for the national anthem was necessary. But there will be no changes to the game operations manual requiring players to stand.
Several owners, including Mara, spoke at this meeting about the potential impact the protests have had on the business. In a league that is often accused of putting the accrual of revenue above other interests, owners and the league office have instead decided to withstand what they hope is a temporary business setback for what they hope is the greater good gained by supporting initiatives that will improve social equality, even as the president continues to berate the league for what he feels is disrespect for the country.
Mara said that the league cannot take the bait of more presidential criticism like that leveled Wednesday. Mara is among the owners who have received letters and calls from fans who have returned tickets and merchandise, saying they cannot support the NFL while players do not stand. Mara said that sometimes it is necessary to put the interests of the business behind the interests of the country, a thought that San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York voiced Tuesday evening. They expect some fans will be unhappy.
"I respond to them by saying that I prefer that our players stand, I've asked our players to stand, I think we're down to one player who has continued to kneel, but at the end of the day, this is America and we do have a thing called the First Amendment," Mara said. "And it's a right of free speech and a right to protest. That's one of the things our forefathers fought and died for, and that continues to be a principle that's very important to most of us."
The league also made clear that there is no quid pro quo with players -- that they did not agree to support social programs in exchange for a gentleman's agreement to stand. It is clear that the league expects that a handful of players will continue to kneel during the national anthem. But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said there is no plan in place for what to do if a team like the Cowboys tries to discipline a player who kneels, when that policy runs counter to the rest of the league, and owners did not emerge from the meeting with an understanding that those teams will not discipline players.
"We did not discuss that," Goodell said. "It was not necessary. We had a real focus on making sure that all of our teams understood the kind of dialogue that took place, the kind of things that they were interested in getting support on, and there was complete support from the NFL, each club supporting their players, and continuing the dialogue we've had on the club level. I will tell you there is unprecedented conversations and dialogue going on between our players, between our owners, between our club officials, between the league, and that is a really positive change for us. We think that ultimately will pay dividends."
The sense of optimism about the level of communication between players and owners was the overriding theme that emerged from the meeting. But it was obvious as the meeting ended that the protest controversy is not going to go away quickly. Several players have already said they will continue not to stand for the national anthem, and the tweets will almost certainly continue.
Goodell said the league is not afraid of tough conversations, and it is likely there will be more of them. Some players have already expressed caution until they see real action from the league to support their causes. Even the issue of whether Colin Kaepernick, who ignited these protests last year and who has filed a grievance alleging that owners have colluded to keep him from being signed, will be invited to attend future meetings with owners will be a thorny one.
Still, for a league that has often seemed to veer to a heavy-handed approach in player relations and discipline, the tenuous partnership currently being forged with players is encouraging -- for the league's future and maybe for the impact the two groups can make together on their communities.
"We believe doing the right thing is what you ultimately have to do," Goodell said. "Listening to our players and understanding our players, trying to address those underlying issues, and making our communities better is where the real opportunity is. That, long-term, is going to benefit us. That is what our focus is, and that is how we will deal with that."