As coaches address during video conferences the question of whether and to what extent they’ll support the decision of players to kneel during the anthem, they’re all giving the wrong answer.
The right answer is this: Ask the owner.
The NFL’s owners have managed to avoid the topic in the week since Saints quarterback Drew Brees‘ effort to link kneeling with “disrespect” reignited the issue. Brees, after being attacked on Twitter by the President, made it clear that kneeling isn’t about the flag. The Commissioner did not provide similar specificity in his Friday video; supporting “peaceful protest” is one thing, making a loud and clear statement that the players are entitled to make that “peaceful protest” during the anthem is another.
The owners, as noted by 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman on Tuesday, have managed to find a way to stay above this specific fray. Generally speaking, they pay Roger Goodell something north of $40 million per year (the current number isn’t known because when the league surrendered its tax-exempt status its obligation to report the amount ended) in part to be the pin cushion for unpopular issues and positions. But this issue — this moment — is too big to justify delegating the topic to the Commissioner. This issue and moment cries out for owners to use their voices to make clear that players have the right to do whatever they choose to do during the playing of the anthem.
Supporting “peaceful protest” in a Commissioner’s video without mentioning the anthem isn’t enough. Reminding reporters that the current policy preserves the right to protest isn’t enough. Delegating the decision and/or the messaging to the coach isn’t enough. The owners must address the issue personally.
In so doing, here’s what the shouldn’t say. First, they shouldn’t say that “the rules allow players to kneel or sit during the anthem if they choose to do so” or similar expressions of tolerance or passive acceptance of something with which they may personally disagree. Second, they shouldn’t say a decision will be made as a team, because that necessarily undermines the inherent right of each player to make a conscientious choice, pressuring the minority to go along with a majority vibe heavily influenced by the coach and/or individual team leaders.
Here’s what the owners should say: “Our players have the absolute right to stand, to kneel, to sit, or to otherwise do whatever they choose to do during the anthem. We encourage them to make a conscious decision as to what they will do during the anthem, and we fully support whatever decision each player makes. There will be no pressure placed upon them to do anything other than what they decide is the right thing to do, and no decisions regarding their position on the roster, their status in the lineup, or their playing time will be made based on this issue.”
If only the owners had access to someone who could help them write a script that all 32 owners could read, and who could then take those 32 videos and turn it into a clear, compelling, and powerful video that would send the message on behalf of all franchises in one fell swoop. Oh, wait; they already do.