The New York Times managed to get their hands on an audio recording of a private meeting between NFL team owners, league executives, and representatives of NFL players that took place last October at the height of the controversy over President Trump’s condemnation of football players who were “taking the knee” to protest police brutality against people of color.
Their resulting article provided a unique behind the scenes look at the dynamics at play in the league as it felt under attack by President Trump’s Twitter calls for boycotts of the league.
That the meeting itself even happened was significant in that player/owner meetings outside of salary negotiations rarely take place except in crisis situations like the drop in TV ratings and game attendance that the player protests and Trump’s rants were threatening.
The players entered the meeting unhappy about what they saw as the blackballing of former San Francisco 49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the practice of “taking the knee” during the national anthem as a form of protest. The owners, for their part, were in a panic over the damage that the controversy was causing their business and came to the meeting seeking a solution to prevent further harm and find a way to get the president to stop his attacks on the league.
Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long advocated for Kaepernick to the league owners and officials, saying ““If he was on a roster right now, all this negativeness and divisiveness could be turned into a positive.” While he stated that he didn’t want to “lecture any team” on who they should be signing, he continued his defense of the now-unemployed fellow player saying that “we all agree in this room as players that he should be on a roster.”
While Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and one of the most liberal of the NFL owners said that the cause of the player protests was not “about one person,” New England Patriots owner and Trump confidante Robert Kraft railed against what he called the “elephant in the room, this kneeling.”
“The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission that I don’t feel is in the best interests of America,” said Kraft. “It’s divisive and it’s horrible.”
That’s a surprising statement from a friend and supporter of Trump. Lurie explained the owners proposed strategy in dealing with the situation.
“We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else,” Lurie said. “We have to find a way to not be divided and not get baited.”
Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula expressed the urgency of the crisis.
“All Donald needs to do is to start to do this again,” Pegula said. “We need some kind of immediate plan because of what’s going on in society. All of us now, we need to put a Band-Aid on what’s going on in the country.”
The NFL owners cared little about the substance of the players political concerns. They had one primary concern, that the player protests were alienating fans and sponsors and that their TV ratings were sinking.
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair directly exhorted the players to call off their expression of political frustration.
“You fellas need to ask your compadres, fellas, stop that other business, let’s go out and do something that really produces positive results, and we’ll help you.”
Despite the owners entreaties the players kept circling back to issue of how Kaepernick was being treated by the league. His former teammate Eric Reid told the owners:
“I feel like he was hung out to dry,” Reid said. “Everyone in here is talking about how much they support us.” The room fell quiet. “Nobody stepped up and said we support Colin’s right to do this. We all let him become Public Enemy No. 1 in this country, and he still doesn’t have a job.”
The best the owners could come up with in response was a proposal to find an African American player to act as a spokesperson for the league the way Charlton Heston became the figurehead of the NRA in his heyday.
In the end, the only thing that resulted from the meeting was a joint statement from both players and league representatives saying:
“Today owners and players had a productive meeting focused on how we can work together to promote positive social change and address inequality in our communities. NFL executives and owners joined NFLPA executives and player leaders to review and discuss plans to utilize our platform to promote equality and effectuate positive change. We agreed that these are common issues and pledged to meet again to continue this work together.”
Meanwhile Colin Kaepernick is still without a job in the NFL and unjustified killings of unarmed black men by members of the police has continued.
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