Two weeks after an initial “show of unity,” when NFL players and, in many cases, their team owners, linked arms on Sept. 24 after President Donald Trump slammed the NFL the night before, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones flipped the script.
At a press conference on Sunday after the Cowboys lost to the Green Bay Packers, Jones suggested the Cowboys will bench players who don’t stand during the national anthem. “We cannot in the NFL, in any way, give the implication that we tolerate disrespecting the flag,” Jones said. “We cannot do that… The Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag. Just so we’re clear.”
While a wide range of team owners issued statements two weeks ago criticizing Trump’s divisive comments about NFL players, Jones has performed a 180. He is the first owner to publicly say that his team will bar its players from kneeling.
And now the NFL appears to be at least considering following suit.
Will NFL ban players from kneeling?
NFL owners will meet next week to discuss a potential rule change to explicitly prohibit players from kneeling during the anthem. (To be clear: the existing policy, which is not in the NFL rulebook but is in a “game operations manual” handed out to teams and not players, states that players “should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking.” But the NFL last season said it would not punish any player that does not do so.
Jones’s comments caught at least some Cowboys players by surprise. And many media outlets have interpreted this as the NFL caving to President Trump, who has tirelessly trashed the NFL for the past month. Politico wrote that the NFL has “lost to Trump” while Slate wrote that the NFL is likely to “give Donald Trump exactly what he wants.”
Trump was quick to praise Jones for his comments.
In the NFL, it’s the 32 team owners that pull the strings. Many football fans forget that Goodell, as commissioner, works for the owners. He serves at their pleasure, and his continued employment is up to them.
Among the 32 owners, Jones is thought to be the very most influential. Besides Jones, the bigger power brokers include New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, the Maras (New York Giants) and the Rooneys (Pittsburgh Steelers).
So, what can the team owners do to minimize the political firestorm Trump is pushing about the NFL? That was the subject of Episode 6 of our ongoing Sportsbook podcast on the business of football. You can listen on iTunes or scroll to the bottom of this post.
The guests on Episode 5 of our podcast were Yahoo Finance writers Rick Newman (who happens to be a Steelers fan) and Myles Udland (Giants fan), and the debate got spirited.
Might owners stand up to Trump? Might players strike?
Newman asked: What’s to stop an owner from publicly coming out against Trump’s demands? One owner could conceivably ask Trump, free of politics, to just stay out of it.
“What we don’t have in the NFL yet is a Bob Corker, someone who flat-out stands up to Trumpand says, ‘Get out of our business. Get out of football, man. You have no place here.’ Now, I’m not sure anybody like that will materialize,” said Newman. “It would be quite refreshing if somebody said, ‘We got it. We know this is a little bit messy, but it’s okay, we’ve been through things like this before, and we know how to run our business. Back off.’”
But is that scenario plausible?
Even though there is vocal rejection of Trump’s crusade against the NFL, even from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh (who said, “We don’t want the president being able to demand anybody that he’s unhappy with behave in a way he requires”), many of the NFL team owners were Trump supporters. 25% of the owners donated money to Trump’s campaign: Jones; Kraft; Ed Glazer (Buccaneers); Stan Kroenke (Rams); Woody Johnson (Jets); Shad Khan (Jaguars); Bob McNair (Texans); and Dan Snyder (Redskins).
Colin Kaepernick provided a similar opportunity this season for the owners to take a stand, and none signed him (even when multiple teams needed to sign a quarterback due to an injury), and it’s looking almost certain none will. Signing Kaepernick, as Newman argues in the podcast, became a “litmus test” for an owner supporting the player protests, and thus appearing to go against Trump. Even if a team truly needed Kaepernick for his skill, signing him would now be taken as a political statement.
Udland raised another possibility: Would the players try to strike? (Recall that there was an NFL lockout in 2011, though it was initiated by the owners.)
“It shouldn’t take, in my estimation, that many players saying, ‘You know what? We’re done with this. We’re done being bullied by our owners, who are being bullied by the president. We’re members of a union, we’ll go to our union rep and say, ’30 of us are sitting. You want to cancel the game, cancel the game,’” said Udland. “I’m not saying this will definitely happen, I just don’t see why it would be such an outside possibility. All these things are in place for the league’s current power structure to sort of erode.”
This is what Trump’s war of words has done to the NFL: backed team owners into a corner where they must choose whether to stand by their players’ right to free speech or side with the president. And it just might lead to a shift in power in the league.