Sunday became, in many respects, one of the most monumental days in the history of the anthem controversy. It marked the renewal of the effort by politicians to make the issue their own. It also became the day on which the owners pushed back.
Whether the reasoned, pragmatic approach from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who has essentially surrendered to the notion that kneeling constitutes disrespect regardless of whether it actually doesn’t, or the aggressive, matter-of-fact, my-way-or-the-highway attitude from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who seems to have grown weary of tiptoeing around what he wants, the owners abandoned months of paralysis and decided to remind everyone that the bosses are the bosses and the workers are the workers.
On Monday morning, the man who leads the union that defends and advances the rights of the workers made his position clear.
“Last week both the Commissioner and the Chair of the NFL Management Council John Mara were clear when they assured our union leaders, in the presence of other owners, that they would respect the Constitutional rights of our members without retribution,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement. “I look forward to the day when everyone in Management can unite and truly embrace and article what that Flag stands for: ‘Liberty and Justice for All’ instead of some of them just talking about standing. We look forward to continuing our talks with them on this very issue.”
As to the claim, previously from outsiders and most recently from Jones, that anything other than standing for the anthem constitutes disrespect, Smith disagrees.
“No player is disrespecting our Country or our Flag. As thousands have shown in the past, it takes bravery and courage to speak and confront these issues as our players have, especially when it is unpopular with some. There is room for Management to do the same and maybe then players do not have to risk the taunts and threats alone. This is their opportunity to lead as well and will be a true test of the motto that ‘Football is Family.’”
Two weeks ago, that was the approach. But with no long-term solution and with players not content to simply get it out of their systems and go back to standing, some owners have decided to do the things they did that allowed them to build and maintain great fortunes — issue orders and expect them to be complied with.
That could end up being a huge mistake. The owners have plenty of power, but on this issue they have none. The more they try to exercise it, the more inclined the players will be to resist. And the more inclined the union will be to stop treating this as a shared concern but as a matter of collective bargaining.
Which is maybe how it should have been treated all along.
If, in the end, the league wants to have the ability to tell players to stand for the anthem, the league needs to be ready to give the players something significant in return. And the harder the owners try to clamor for an outcome they currently don’t have the power to engineer, the bigger the concession should be.