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Football is here — and the NFL still doesn't know what to do about protests

"We have never seen anything like this before in the NFL."
by Jacob Taylor /  / Updated 

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Player protests, pending collusion grievances against team owners and a sitting president's scorn does not sound like a typical lead-up to another NFL season.

But in 2018, it's the current state of America's most-watched sport.

Since former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started protesting police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem before games in 2016, the NFL and its owners and executives have been trying to find ways to manage the controversy.

And on the eve of the season's opener, there is still no clear solution in sight. The NFL announced in May that players who protest must stay in the locker room for the anthem or teams would be fined. The policy was then put on hold after the players union objected, and the league and union are now in talks over a potential compromise.

"We have never seen anything like this before in the NFL," said Alvin Tillery, who runs Northwestern University's Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. "Despite their wealth and stardom, most of these athletes are still deeply connected to the African-American community by family ties, churches and cultural connections."

Kaepernick’s protests gained the support of other NFL players, who began demonstrating by kneeling or raising their fists in solidarity before games. This week, Nike announced that Kaepernick would be the front man for its campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of the "Just Do It" slogan.

Kaepernick has remained unsigned since becoming a free agent last year, and in October, he filed a grievance against the league accusing team owners of conspiring to keep him out of the NFL because of his protests. An arbitrator last week allowed the grievance to proceed to trial.

The original purpose of the demonstrations became noticeably blurred when President Donald Trump decided to voice his opposition on social media and at rallies. He called on owners to fire players who protested and has characterized the protests as disrespectful to the military.

He blasted the NFL on Twitter Wednesday, saying the league's ratings are "way down" and it will be "hard to watch" games until "players stand for the flag."

Trump has also said that "most players" are not able to define what the protests are about.

Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins disagrees. Like other players in the league, Jenkins has put in charitable and social justice work off the field to support and reinforce the protests' original intent.

Jenkins has participated in police ride-alongs and tried to create greater dialogue between law enforcement and African-Americans. His teammate Chris Long donated his entire 2017 base salary of $1 million to educational charities in Virginia, Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis

Kaepernick fulfilled his pledge to donate $1 million to charities that focus on serving underprivileged communities. Other players, such as Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty have written about and moderated forums on criminal justice reform.

During the 2018 preseason, some players have continued to protest.

Miami Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn raised his fist before a preseason game while his teammates Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson kneeled on the sideline. Some players remained in the tunnel while the anthem was played.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has publicly supported the players’ work in the past but has insisted the league wants all players on the field to stand for the anthem.

“We want people to be respectful of the national anthem,” Goodell said in a news conference with team owners in May. “We want people to stand and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion.”

Owners and team executives have had mixed reactions to any sort of restrictive anthem policy. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said his players would be "required to stand," while Jets CEO and Chairman Christopher Johnson has vowed to pay any potential fines incurred by players who protest.

Texans owner Robert McNair has said the football field "is not the place for political statements" and players should "respect the flag and respect our country."

Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback, told NFL Media's Michael Silver before the start of the preseason: "I don't know how many times we can say, as a player and as a group, how much we love and support and appreciate the troops, and the opportunities this country allows us. But this is about equality and something bigger than ourselves, and bringing people together, and love and connectedness and equality and social justice, and putting a light on people who deserve to have the attention for their causes and their difficult situations that they're in."

Most networks do not typically broadcast the national anthem during regular season games, and ESPN has said it will not do so for "Monday Night Football" this season. But the controversy surrounding the protests will still remain front and center this season.

"I think that many of the players who are deeply committed to the issue will continue to protest and incur fines," Northwestern's Tillery said.

"You will always be able to find a player like Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliot," he said, referring to two stars for the Cowboys, "who will criticize the protests, so I don't see a quick and easy resolution to this issue."

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