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'Don't Believe the Hype': The Crumbling Players Coalition and Future of the NFL

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 1, 2017

In this Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, file photo, Former NFL football player Anquan Boldin, left, Philadelphia Eagles Malcolm Jenkins, center, and San Francisco 49ers Eric Reid, right, speak to the media outside the league's headquarters after meetings in New York. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Eric Reid says he left The Players Coalition because founder Malcolm Jenkins excluded Colin Kaepernick from meetings, and asked players if they would stop protesting the anthem if the NFL made a charitable donation to causes they support. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Richard Drew/Associated Press

Not long ago, a member of the Players Coalition, a group of about 40 NFL players negotiating with the NFL to address the concerns of protesting players, received a proposal from the league office. He was shocked to read what he thought was a one-sided deal heavily in favor of the owners.

The plan, at first blush, seemed to have its merits, the player told B/R. As ESPN.com first reported, the league would direct some $100 million "to causes considered important to African-American communities," write Jim Trotter and Jason Reid. Owners this year would contribute $5 million, with a maximum of $12 million a year from 2021 through 2023. There were other financial benefits.

The player and an adviser used by the player, however, began to have doubts as they looked deeper into what the NFL was pitching. They do not believe the money the owners will give will approach anywhere near $100 million, both told me. Other members of the coalition started to have similar doubts.

Some of those players believe a significant chunk of the NFL's efforts would go to public service announcements. The PSAs would effectively cost the NFL nothing and, the players think, would function as little more than propaganda for the league.

There is also the belief that even if the NFL lives up to its $100 million pledge, that amount is a pittance to the NFL's wealthy owners.

The sources that spoke to B/R, composed of players and agents familiar with the NFL's offer and the coalition (and who asked not to be identified), explained there are some good aspects to what the coalition wants to do.

Yet they also fear the coalition, and its goals, are being watered down, "co-opted" as some said. "We are getting rolled," one member of the coalition told B/R. "The NFL is the Patriots, and we are the Browns."

Another player on Thursday morning said, "The NFL is buying us off cheap," adding, "The NFL's true goal is to stop us from protesting, not effect any real change."

Chiefs defensive back Marcus Peters, who has regularly sat on the bench during the national anthem, issued this cryptic tweet after news of the agreement became public:

Marcus Peters @marcuspeters

hush money:money paid to someone to prevent them from disclosing embarrassing or discreditable information.

Indeed, Slate reported that 49ers safety Eric Reid received a message that stated, "Would you be willing to end the protests if they made a donation?"

It's these reasons why the coalition, I'm told, has fractured into two camps: those who believe the NFL's efforts are sincere and those who believe this agreement effectively amounts to what Peters tweeted—a form of hush money.

Two of the most liked and respected members of the coalition, Reid and Dolphins safety Michael Thomas, both announced Wednesday on Twitter they were leaving the coalition:

Then things became even more contentious. Mark Maske of the Washington Post reported Wednesday night that the league and the coalition had reached an agreement wherein teams and the league would commit $90 million to $100 million toward causes championed by the players with a focus on African-American communities.

However, not long after that story was published, Chargers lineman Russell Okung withdrew from the Players Coalition too and issued a damning statement on the group and agreement:

Russell Okung @RussellOkung

I agree with @E_Reid35’s assessment & also withdrew my involvement with the Players Coalition, effective earlier today. https://t.co/A3zpQ4BN5N

From here, we could talk more about the particulars of the politics of this, but there's really just one issue to digest: What does the fractured coalition mean for the future of the NFL?

The answers are complex. First, the protests, in some form, will likely continue. Though Malcolm Jenkins announced Thursday that he would not demonstrate during the anthem this weekend, Reid doubled down on his opposition, telling Slate's Jeremy Stahl the league plans to use funds from its breast cancer awareness and military service programs for social awareness initiatives, which he thinks amounts to a payoff to protesting players. That the players aren't united reportedly has infuriated the commissioner, per Trotter and Reid.

Then there's the relationship between players and the league. The talks between both sides were about trying to generate unity between the two forces. That likely won't be realized. A league that needs total togetherness still may not see it.

If you're a fan, all of this greatly matters. The schism between players and owners has grown exponentially, and for longtime NFL watchers, that divide has hurt play on the field. 

How? A more cooperative union and effective commissioner could smooth out rules changes quicker, handle the seriousness of head trauma more smoothly, look out for the well-being of players more and create a happier NFL. The less contentiousness, nastiness and selfishness there is, the better the product.

It's hard to escape the notion that this all could have been avoided if it wasn't mishandled by Roger Goodell from the beginning. He ignored the protests early, and it was clear they were going to grow. A commissioner who had the respect of his players could have called a summit a year ago and found a solution suitable for everyone. But the lack of trust on both sides led to inaction, and so the problem festered.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

A more unified league is a better league. Just look at the NBA, where coaches, players and owners have an almost symbiotic relationship and many problems are solved before they start.

But not in the NFL, where there are still players who don't trust the league, and where that distrust has led some to quit the coalition that is supposed to help heal the rift.

Yes, the agreement between the coalition and league will look good. You will see a press conference, or an announcement, from the NFL and players. It will be splashy and magnificent.

And sure, there will be some good work to emerge from the agreement.

But not enough. Not nearly enough.

      

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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