Truce with Union May Bring NFL Peace, but There's No Escaping Politics Anymore

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 12, 2017

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 01: Miami Dolphins players kneel down during the national anthem before the NFL game between the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium on October 1, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)
Henry Browne/Getty Images

Here is what will happen if the NFL adopts a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem at the owners' meetings next week: 

  • There will be much outcry on the internet, much like all the other outcry on the internet.
  • My colleagues and I will all write eloquent columns condemning the decision, then share them with each other.
  • The president will tweet about his victory, just as he prematurely tweeted about his win Wednesday morning. He will then flit off to engage in a flame war against the mayor of a disaster-ravaged city or something.
  • Eminem will drop a scathing rap, which will make my 40-something-year-old white colleagues and I feel empowered and relevant as we share it with each other.
  • Nearly every player in the NFL will stand for the anthem with little more than a grumbled "no comment" about their feelings. Dedicated firebrands like Malcolm Jenkins (who has always stood) and the Bennett brothers will issue hopeful statements about achieving their goals by other means, then take their social justice activism to their Instagram feeds. Marshawn Lynch will do whatever he wants.
  • By the Super Bowl, protests during the anthem will be a distant memory, and the causes they represented will be banished from the sports consciousness.

The End.

What, you were expecting a happy ending? Or at least a dramatic one, full of marches, walkouts and sit-ins?

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 25: Quarterback Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys links arms with teammates offensive tackle Tyron Smith #77 and offensive guard Chaz Green #79 during the National Anthem before the start of the NFL game against the Arizona Ca
Chris Coduto/Getty Images

You'll have to settle for a ray of hope instead. The NFL and NFLPA issued a joint statement Wednesday afternoon, stressing that there was "no change in the current policy" and that players, union leadership and Commissioner Roger Goodell were "coming together to deal with these issues in a civil and constructive way."

So, for now, unilateral action and angry-grandpa rhetoric about forcing players to their feet like convicts on a chain gang is out. Constructiveness and a spirit of compromise are in.

It's a reassuring step back from the abyss of the early week, when Jerry Jones announced a stand-or-else policy for the Dallas Cowboys, who responded Wednesday afternoon with a series of team meetings and uneasy radio silence with the media. Things appeared to be heading toward an ultimatum next week. Instead, we appear to be heading toward a civil conversation.

The White House cannot be pleased.

Still, the current truce between the NFL and its players is fragile.

All the NFL ever wanted to do was make the protests during the anthem go away. It was the most honest statement in Tuesday's mealy-mouthed soggy waffle of a memo from the commissioner's office to the owners: The league wants to "move past this controversy" surrounding the protest.

In a climate where Hollywood, Broadway and television networks are fodder for presidential tirades and the cultural aftershocks they cause, Goodell wants the NFL to remain all things to everyone, a "unifying power" in the crucial sense of remaining a safe harbor for nervous advertisers.

But it was impossible to be apolitical after the president put the NFL in his crosshairs during one of his grievance-airing rallies nearly three weeks ago. Lest the NFL think that its "show of unity" dissuade the White House from further attacks, the administration doubled down by apparently sending the vice president to upstage Peyton Manning's Ring of Honor ceremony last Sunday with a contrived (though canny) protest of its own.

Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith may be in agreement to discuss the protests during the anthem for now, but any truce between the league and players is a fragile one.
Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith may be in agreement to discuss the protests during the anthem for now, but any truce between the league and players is a fragile one.Phil Long/Associated Press/Associated Press

However divisive and unpopular the president may be, he is still the president, with the political clout and allies to make life miserable for business owners, not to mention an unwavering support base, a small percentage of which will write letters, call sponsors, demand refunds, burn jerseys (at least) and do just about everything short of engage in a nuanced debate about racial issues.

Bleacher Report's Mike FreemanESPN's Josina Anderson and others have reported that league brass is tired of dealing with the anthem controversy. But the president never tires of picking fights. So the league hopes to tightrope along the sidelines, trying to avert player mutinies and political maelstroms while throwing both sides of a polarized nation enough bones to keep everyone tuning in.

For the record, the league doesn't fear massive television boycotts from either side. Folks on both sides of the debate can be counted upon to boycott the NFL the same way that most of us diet: lots of initial zeal, some social-network proclamations, a few days of fasting, then a backslide at the first glimpse of a plate of wings or a game with playoff implications.

We tuned in after the domestic violence crisis became public. We have tuned in despite CTE. The president's mighty base of hardliners had 13 months since Colin Kaepernick first knelt to make their presence felt on the bottom line, but they are better at claiming that ratings have crashed than actually making them crash.

The NFL can ride out controversial storms. But it's not built to withstand a ceaseless onslaught of allegations and recriminations from the White House, the kind that keeps the wound open, makes the local chamber of commerce/state legislature/Fraternal Order of Police uneasy and tempts owners like Jones to go rogue. No American industry is built for that.

That's why next week's owners meetings looked like they would end in swift, unilateral action to make the presidential screeching stop, with the NFL forcing players to stand for the anthem (with hands on breasts and properly patriotic looks plastered upon their faces). Such a hastily enacted policy might be dubious legally and violate collective bargaining, but neither of those things has stopped the NFL before.

Jerry Jones' plan to bench any Cowboys player who didn't stand for the national anthem wasn't received well in the Dallas locker room.
Jerry Jones' plan to bench any Cowboys player who didn't stand for the national anthem wasn't received well in the Dallas locker room.Matt York/Associated Press

With players at the table, the NFL is more likely to seek a cease fire. Perhaps kneeling and sitting during the national anthem (but not raised fists or locked arms) will end in exchange for the usual high-minded appeasement gifts the league offers other aggrieved special interests. Money and promotional muscle for social causes. Town hall events in communities. A PSA during a bathroom break at the Super Bowl. A special NFL Supports Vague Social Causes Month, with ribbons for cheerleaders and personalized (though carefully vetted) messages on cleats.

These things can be genuinely constructive. But they also cushion the issues they hope to address, dropping the NFL's involvement in politics from the all-day cable-news cycle to the bottom of the local-beat human-interest section, well below the current administration's radar and attention span.

The alternativea like-it-or-lump-it order to stand—will always lurk in the background if the players aren't willing to compromise. The union would fight, but the players would not stage any walkouts or kneel-ins. Too many fear for their jobs. Not enough are on board with the protests in the first place. Even the most vocal player activists know that the message behind their protests has been co-opted and diluted anyway.

Eventually, the president will get some version of what he wants. And he will not be quiet about it.

If that leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, there is one thing you can do about it. It's the one thing Kaepernick and the other players have always wanted us to do, the thing the White House will throw threats and flags in front of us to make us forget.

Remember that NFL players knelt because unarmed African-Americans are often shot by police officers, and the system offers almost no recourse, justice or even sympathy for the victims.

Remember that when you vote, when you act, when you donate, when you speak, when you post, when you argue with your parents and instruct your children.

Remember it when you stand for the national anthem.

And remember that while the president may be able to scare Roger Goodell into making players do things that are against their principles, he cannot make you do something that is against yours.

Not yet, anyway.

               

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.