The NFL and NFL Players Association had their first major effort to resolve the anthem situation 17 days ago. Despite some initial optimism, as publicly hinted by Steelers owner Art Rooney II, it currently appears that, while there eventually may be a resolution, there still will be no solution.
Peter King reports in his latest Football Morning in America column that, according to one unnamed source, there are doubts that the end result will include all players standing for the anthem. Which gets back to something I was told three weeks ago: There’s no end game for the anthem controversy.
Two weeks ago, some believed maybe there was. Some thought maybe, just maybe, the union, which doesn’t need unanimity to agree to rule changes, would tie the hands of those who would kneel or otherwise protest during the anthem. The problem, however, is that even though the NFL Players Association can get things done with simple majorities, it’s not nearly as simple as having a majority of players or player representatives wipe away rights currently exercised by a very small percentage of the rank and file.
Even if the 99 percent of players who aren’t protesting were to agree on behalf of the 100 percent to stand, some percentage of the one percent would resist, and possibly would continue to protest — creating a situation in which the protests become even more significant and noteworthy.
King makes no bones about blaming the current mess on Commissioner Roger Goodell, and King is right to say, as he does, that on this issue Goodell has failed to lead. But King misses the mark just a bit by suggesting that Goodell should have sprung to action last September to resolve the situation with De Smith, Goodell’s counterpart at the NFLPA.
By last September, it was already too late. Goodell should have engaged Smith the moment former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was spotted sitting during the anthem in August 2016, and Goodell and Smith should have worked out a deal that fixed the loophole the league created.
And that’s where a hostile, cantankerous, belligerent relationship between management and labor can hurt both sides. Because Goodell and Smith don’t enjoy the kind of trust that their respective predecessors, Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, shared, Goodell and Smith aren’t able to quickly fashion win-win outcomes. Also, given the league’s desire to not just win but crush the opponent during any and all negotiations, Goodell and the league never, ever would have gone to Smith and the union and said, “Um, we have a little problem. Can we work together to solve it before it becomes a big problem?”
If Goodell had engaged Smith two years ago this month, Smith justifiably could have responded by saying, “So, you have a little problem? How did that little problem come to be?”
The honest answer would have been, “Well, we made the problem because someone wrote the policy in a way that created an unintended loophole, requiring players to be on the sideline for the anthem but not requiring them to actually stand for the anthem.” And the candid reply from Smith very well may have been, “That stinks for you.”
The bottom line is that the NFL made this mess by creating the right to protest and then, when a player chose to protest, acknowledged that, indeed, players have the right to protest. Two years later, every headache and hassle relating to the anthem flows from the league’s failures in that regard, and it seems that the issue long ago made it past the point of no return.