The NFL’s owners meeting taking place Tuesday in Manhattan was supposed to be about standing—or not standing—for the National Anthem. That’s why the sidewalks in front of the NFL’s midtown offices were packed with reporters all morning, and it’s why satellite trucks were parallel parked in front of the Conrad Hotel in Lower Manhattan before the sun rose.
And then, a funny thing happened: neither the morning meeting between a group of owners and players, nor the NFL’s fall meeting to follow was about the anthem at all. Instead, the league and the players tried to move past that.
So how did this all go down? A group of 13 players and 11 owners, plus NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, met for close to four hours on Park Ave, starting at 10 a.m. ET. According to the players there, there was very little talk about the national anthem, and the discussion didn’t touch even the idea of a change to the league’s policy on standing for the anthem
Then, those 11 owners went more than 60 blocks downtown to meet with the rest of their peers. The discussion from there, described by one executive as “benign”, focused on where the league was going forward—and the anthem issue was barely raised. As one ownership source described the mood, it was clear that at least “27 or 28” owners were fully on board with the plan to move forward.
So the external dialogue may be on whether or not players should stand. The internal dialogue was not—there’s no new league policy on standing during the anthem coming, and the discussion has clearly shifted to addressing the issues that players brought forth.
“I think everyone’s looking at it like that,” 49ers CEO Jed York told me in the immediate aftermath, as one of the 11 owners who met with the players. “And I think the vast majority of the players that were there today said, ‘We now have attention, we have the spotlight, but that’s not what we’re trying to accomplish. We want to accomplish real change.’
“And I think if there’s real sincerity on both sides, which there certainly seems to be coming out of today, we can take protests and turn them into progress.”
In talking to those in both meetings, I was able to gather what I see as three principle areas that should serve as a foundation for where things go from here.
First, a multifaceted effort to support the social causes important to players is coming, and coming soon. Some of it will be as part of existing efforts, like Crucial Catch and Salute to Service and My Cleats, My Cause. Some of it will be in giving players access to lawmakers. Some of it will be in teams funding programs in their communities. Some of it still could come through using NFL Network as a platform.
And then, as York explained to me, “in the long run, I think you’ll see a really, really strong platform and initiative where we have several weeks of the season that are dedicated to socioeconomic and racial causes.”
Bottom line, this effort will widespread, and it will be visible.
Second, there was an agreement in the room that some of the events of the last few weeks were certainly bad for business, as was the mudslinging with, among others, the president.
Third, the players want continued access to the owners—both on a one-on-one basis at the club level, and with forums like they had today at the league level. They want, very much, to be treated as partners, and have a voice at the table, and the owners, on the surface at least, seem amenable to that. And it’s expected to cross club-to-club, too. Say a player is from Miami but plays for Cleveland? If he wants to lead an initiative in his hometown, he may now have a line to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
And as part of all this, some leaders emerged today, too. Those on the league side pointed to Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and Jets linebacker Demario Davis as strong voice in the room, and, on the other side, Giants owner John Mara, Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill and Falcons owner Arthur Blank distinguished themselves.
Now, what’s important to remember coming out of this very important Tuesday is that this, as they wanted it to, represents a beginning, not a conclusion—and everyone knows it’s easier to talk about it in some board room than successfully put all of it into action.
There are politics involved here too, and those can get complicated. And what if Donald Trump goes off again on Twitter or at some rally? The hope, I’ve heard, is that his repeated needling of the NFL will lead to future salvos losing their effect. But it’s hard to count on that.
So there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty here, but there was plenty of positivity, too. For the first time in a while, the NFL and players were looking forward and planning, rather than looking back and reacting.
And that alone represents a significant step forward.