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Opinion: NFL Must Stand Against Anti-Kneeling Policies

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Memo to NFL owners: Forcing players to stand for the national anthem would be a huge mistake. 

Sure, football players undoubtedly love their country and respect the armed forces. Yet with the owners set to begin two days of meetings Tuesday — the agenda includes discussion of possibly revising the anthem policy to effectively adopt an anti-kneeling clause — it is a great time for the league to prove just how much it gets it by ... doing nothing to bully players over this issue. 

Besides, an anti-kneeling policy would seem rather hollow with Colin Kaepernick and his former San Francisco 49ers teammate, safety Eric Reid, out of work as they pursue collusion cases against the NFL.

That Kaepernick, a quarterback in his prime, can't land a job in a league with a fair share of sorry passers is about as un-American as it gets. Reid's only legitimate sniff on the free agent market abruptly ended when he wouldn't promise Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown that he wouldn't kneel to further protest police brutality and other social injustices victimizing African Americans.

The NFL is fashioned as a meritocracy, open for the best players to claim jobs based on competition. Yet in the case of Kaepernick and now Reid, we know better. Whether they can prove collusion or not, this is what being blackballed looks like.

For a league that supposedly frowns on teams asking draft prospects about their sexuality, questions about whether players might exercise their constitutional rights during the anthem as a condition of employment needs to be declared off limits, too.

Often-battered Commissioner Roger Goodell repeatedly states that he won't get involved in the "personnel decisions" of teams. Yet I suspect that predecessor Paul Tagliabue and now-deceased NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw might have worked through some back channels if confronted with the type of issues flowing out of the protests.

In any event, the least that Goodell can do would be to ensure that one of the ideas floated in recent weeks — that teams can devise their own anthem policies — never comes to fruition. It's one thing for teams to favor a player based on his background in a particular scheme or to be turned off due to locker room chemistry issues. But to spit in the face of American values the flag is supposed to represent by refusing to hire someone who might kneel during the anthem is such a slippery slope for a league that has employed players (and others) convicted or accused of all sorts of transgressions.

Besides, while the league allows teams to generate some internal revenue with local marketing and stadium deals, so much about the NFL (and its success as the nation's most popular sport) has been about uniformity and standards set from the league level. Teams share equally in massive TV contracts. There's a global labor deal and drug policy. Teams split proceeds from Super Bowl bids and expansion fees.

No need to go against that principle during The Star-Spangled Banner.

To allow teams to exercise their own anthem policies would be akin to pouring gas on a fire — kind of like Donald Trump did last September while spewing red-meat rhetoric to his supporters during a rally in Alabama, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now," as his grand solution. Before Trump's declaration, you could probably count the number of protesting players across the league on one hand.

Bad for business? That's a rationalization you'll hear from some supporters of an anthem policy. Yet the same people who grumble that players are using the NFL stage to protest have no issue wrapping that same stage in patriotism — with symbols that mean different things to different people in this culturally diverse society.

Like it or not, the convergence of sports and societal issues doesn't need to go away. It needs to be accepted. If players are compelled to make a peaceful gesture on behalf of people who don't have a voice, so be it. What's the harm? It might even raise consciousness that could lead to positive action.

What NFL owners need to adopt is a do-right policy. League support of initiatives that are ongoing with the Players Coalition — led by Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, former stud wideout Anquan Boldin and Doug Baldwin, the dynamic Seahawks receiver — is a much-needed, long overdue step toward pursuing solutions. The protest-to-progress mind-set is clearly legitimate, and the NFL's clout can't hurt with the type of reform that the coalition is pursuing.

Yet with Kaepernick and Reid still ostracized (and linked to a rift with the coalition), a "sell-out" perception lingers that the coalition members exchanged their right to protest while leaving dissenters to fend for themselves.

No, now is not the time for an iron-clad policy forcing players to stand for the anthem. It's the time to acknowledge some truths, like we're all part of the American melting pot.

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May 22, 2018
 
 
 

 

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