Fewer protests still too much for NFL, but league welcomes relative silence from Jerry Jones and President Trump

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones held his tongue. President Donald Trump rested his NFL-aimed Twitter thumbs. And while many protests of racial inequality during the anthem continued Sunday, they did so with hopes of progress between team owners and players.

In a season of nonstop turmoil, it was the best that could be expected for commissioner Roger Goodell. Maybe second only to a meaningful compromise before the Veterans Day weekend games on Nov. 12, when most anthems will serve as an unambiguous celebration of those who have served in the nation’s military.

For now, the league has to be happy with a fairly low-drama Sunday, thanks to an uncharacteristically quiet Trump and low-key Jones, who continued to be silent about last week’s NFL meetings, where owners and players established some positive dialogue on anthem protests and social activism. The league’s most notable (and perhaps last) hard-liner on anthem protests, Jones left many wondering what might come out of his next postgame commentary after the meetings. But his comments featured more reserve than rhetoric in front of cameras and microphones, steering clear of anything that might undercut last week’s talks.

San Francisco 49ers players kneel during the performance of the national anthem on Sunday. (AP)
Dallas Cowboys players stand during the performance of the national anthem on Sunday. (AP)

That doesn’t mean his stance on anthem protests has changed. But it showcases some finesse that hasn’t always been there on the issue. During last week’s meetings, Jones is believed to have been the lone NFL owner who voiced support for disciplinary measures against protesters. But he carefully navigated his way around the issue Sunday, which featured Cowboys defensive end David Irving once again raising a fist at the conclusion of the anthem.

“I know that [David] was very deliberate on his [actions] during the anthem and of course, that’s the issue with me,” Jones said, pointing out that Irving didn’t protest during the anthem. “I’m very proud of the way [the players] all handled themselves.”

Across the field from the Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers had seven players who knelt during the anthem. Jones declined comment when asked about the 49ers.

“My thoughts and my interest is how the Cowboys are conducting themselves as players both on and off [the field],” Jones said.

Varying accounts put the number of protesting players somewhere near two dozen on Sunday – either kneeling, sitting, raising a fist or staying in the locker room during the anthem. That’s more than Goodell’s fuzzy math from the owners meetings, in which he stated “about a half-dozen players” were protesting. Yet it’s also far fewer than the 100-plus who protested after Trump’s Sept. 22 comments in which he said kneeling “son of a bitch” players needed to be fired.

Given Goodell and owners have continued to say they’d prefer all players refrain from protests, two dozen protesting players is also still far more than the NFL is comfortable with. Now comes the hard part: measuring a suitable compromise.

That’s what the next meeting between owners and players is expected to encompass, with the two sides slated to convene again on Oct. 31. Specifically, to discuss concrete plans for initiatives that the league and individual teams can establish with players. In turn, owners will hope to gain some perspective into what those concrete plans will mean for the future of anthem protests. They’ll also surely hope to get an idea of how many protests could take place on the Veterans Day weekend, which could be the next potential flashpoint for the league.

While a trade isn’t being offered, per se, the reality is that is exactly what NFL owners are looking for – whether they want to admit it or not. If the league is going to get on board with what the players are seeking, the owners are going to expect at least some of the players to get on board with what they see as a resolution regarding anthem participation.

There’s also the looming reality that total agreement – as in, zero anthem protests – may not be obtainable. Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett has already said he plans to continue sitting through the anthem. In all, nine Seahawks players joined Bennett on Sunday, either sitting or taking a knee before their game against the New York Giants. This after Bennett said last week that any future negotiation with owners needs to include the NFL giving former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick another look.

It still hasn’t been determined whether Kaepernick will join the Oct. 31 meeting, although a source close to the quarterback told Yahoo Sports on Sunday that such a plan “hasn’t materialized” to this point. Players have indicated they would be open to Kaepernick attending, despite a recent grievance he filed, accusing the NFL of blackballing him from an NFL job.

This week will provide some clarity on whether Kaepernick will be involved in future talks, the source said. It may ultimately come down to whether the two sides believe it would impede or reverse any momentum gained in recent days – or whether Kaepernick is even interested in attending future meetings.

For now, that question is unanswered, just like quite a few others surrounding the ongoing back-and-forth. But it doesn’t change Sunday’s slight win, featuring less Jerry Jones, less President Trump and less fretting about whether the league could move the field away from social and political theater.

Last week the NFL was looking for a faint sign of hope and maybe a little silence. On Sunday, it got both.

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