Both sides say protest talks productive, more talks to come

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

NEW YORK (AP) — When owners talk directly with players, it often has to do with contracts.

The dialogue Tuesday was of a much different nature, and from the way NFL team owners, Commissioner Roger Goodell and a bunch of players reacted, the discussions were informative, enlightening and potentially impactful.

In an unprecedented move, the league invited players and representatives from their union to the annual fall meeting, seeking a way of enhancing the players’ platforms for speaking out on social issues. Player demonstrations during the national anthem, begun by then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick more than a year ago, had been misconstrued as being protests against the anthem itself, or the American flag, or the military.

That, the players insisted, was an inaccurate interpretation that was exacerbated when President Donald Trump called them out and suggested the owners should fire any players who knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Some NFL owners and the commissioner have engaged in lengthy talks with the players in the last few weeks. This was an opportunity to do so on a larger scale.

So 11 owners, nearly a dozen players, Goodell and executives from the league and the NFL Players Association got together for more than two hours Tuesday.

“We felt like the meeting went really well,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, a player whose presence in the Philadelphia community has been notable for years. “Obviously we’ve been invited up here to be able to speak with owners about some of the issues of injustice that we’ve seen in our communities, and how as players we can use our platforms. And we just talked about how the owners could come alongside us collectively, collaboratively work together to create change, some real change.”

Goodell said the owners basically were all-in on any such initiatives. Just how they will get involved is uncertain. Indeed, one owner, Dallas’ Jerry Jones, has threatened to adhere to the president’s demand that any player not standing for the anthem not be allowed to play. Others might feel the same way but haven’t been vocal about it.

Goodell was extremely vocal in praising the players’ advocacy, if not how they have gone about it; the NFL supports all players standing during the anthem.

“Their commitment to addressing these issues is really admirable, and something that our owners looked at and said: ‘We want to help support you. Those are issues that affect us as well. They’re our issues also. We’d like to do it together,’” Goodell said.

Jenkins and other players expect that will happen.

“Conversations will continue, the dialogue will continue,” he said. “As players we’ll continue to work in our communities because we feel like that’s the most American thing to do, to use your platform and influence. With the stage that we have as NFL players, and as a league in general, we feel a real responsibility to our country, to our communities, so we’re working through ways to really have long-lasting, real change.”

Whether further talks without any immediate action will placate the critics is questionable. But to expect a solution to be reached in two hours or so during what truly was a fact-finding meeting is unrealistic.

Buffalo linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a player rep to the union, notes that it’s critical that all sides involved don’t “just make this a one day, show up, great optics and then leave it behind.”

He recognizes that the most difficult task is persuading people that there’s a message behind the demonstrations, that there’s no lack of patriotism, no disrespect for the anthem.

“That’s the hardest thing because those people are automatically putting their blinders up because they disagree with how we went about bringing the awareness,” Alexander said. “I wish I could in some way get through to those people. Ultimately, it’s going to probably take sitting down with somebody like myself or somebody who has similar experiences and really having an open conversation, and not allow that anger or disappointment in how they perceive what we’re doing as disrespecting our country to get in the way.

“And that’s ultimately, the only way they’re ever going to see my point of view.”

What’s next? Certainly more community involvement from virtually everyone in pro football. More dialogue about the issues troubling the players. More discussion about the manner of protest that is troubling the owners.

“Very little of the meeting was about the actual anthem,” Jenkins said. “We were really more talking about solutions and how we get the results that we want to get.”