Even Pandora knew enough not to open two cans of worms on her world. Not so NFL owners.
This week, during their annual spring meeting, men who seem to care little about the game their teams play and less about the men who play them managed to make two moves that seem sure to do nothing but add more controversy to a game already over laden with it lately.
First they voted “unanimously’’ to make any demonstration during the National Anthem short of standing ramrod straight an offense for which a team with any violators could be fined by the league and a player could be disciplined by his team. They did this without consultation or negotiation with the players union by claiming it was a change to game day operations and hence not subject to collective bargaining. They of course also said they did this “respectfully.’’
There, in a nutshell, is why the NFL has seemingly endless problems dealing with its players, both present and past, while the NBA does not. The former likes to claim “we’re all in this together’’ but seldom acts that way except when throwing a few dollars around while the latter truly does.
To make matters worse, the lack of unanimity among owners quickly became obvious when it was learned that 49ers’ owner Jed York had not voted for the policy but rather “abstained’’ and then made clear he didn’t feel fiat was the best way to go on this.
A few hours later, Jets’ CEO Christopher Johnson doubled down, saying his team would not abide by the new rule unless the players chose to. If they did not abide by it they would not be subject to a team fine or discipline.
"As I have in the past, I will support our players wherever we land as a team," Johnson said in a statement. "Our focus is not on imposing any club rules, fines or restrictions."
That would make his team subject to a league fine he would not then pass on to his players. This did not seem to alter a point of view that made clear this “unanimous vote’’ was, in reality, anything but.
“If the team gets fined, that's just something I'll have to bear," Johnson told Newsday.
The one caveat in all this was that any player who wants to hide in the locker room rather than stand tall or not at all when the Anthem is played would not be subject to a fine. In other words, in the NFL’s America the Beautiful, you are free to protest as long as their customers or advertisers don’t see you.
The NFL Players Association was naturally outraged but the problem there is its leader. DeMaurice Smith is outraged if the wind blows across his forehead so his outrage carries far less weight than it once did. But individual players like Malcolm Jenkins, a leader in the players’ movement for social justice, and Chris Long, a long-time social activist when not playing football, were quick to speak out. They were soon followed by others.
“What NFL owners did today was thwart the players’ constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial inequality in our country,” Jenkins said on Instagram. “Everyone loses when voices get stifled.
“While I disagree with this decision, I will not let it silence or stop me from fighting. The national conversation around race in America that NFL players forced over the past 2 years will persist as we continue to use our voices, our time and our money to create a more fair and just criminal justice system, and police brutality and foster better educational and economic opportunities for communities of color and those struggling in this country. For me, this has never been about taking a knee, raising a fist or anyone’s patriotism but doing what we can to effect real change for real people.
“It’s also never been about “disrespecting” the anthem or the flag. But the new NFL anthem policy jumps to that conclusion, ignoring the important reasons underlying the protests — reasons that many in power apparently would prefer to ignore, along with the freedoms that Americans enjoy to do that which may not be popular or regarded by some as “patriotic.”
The obvious truth of Jenkins’ words when juxtaposed to the palaver coming from the owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell stand in stark contrast. The owners announce a “unanimous’’ vote that within an hour proves not to be so unanimous. They offer a $87-million pile of cash to players for various social justice issues they favor but it was clearly little more than hush money. Meanwhile, in the same week, HBO runs a lengthy piece on how the league consistently refuses to pay its former players the cash settlements it agreed to in the concussion lawsuit after finally being forced to concede it had for decades lied to players about the long-term risk of concussions and the game’s violent connection to them.
So these are guys you’re going to trust? Not if you ever got a concussion playing football, which would be about 95% of anyone who ever played football.
What the owners made was not a social decision or even a social commentary this week. They did what they always do these days. They made a business decision and it will soon enough cause more problems than it solves. Johnson, for one, seem to understand this
In March, at the annual owner’s meeting, Johnson said “trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea."
He was right about that then and now but his colleagues (or perhaps co-conspirators if Kaepernick and Reid win a collusion law suit filed against those owners for allegedly being blackballed from playing because of their silent protests) figured what he meant was what they live by. If we give them some cash they’ll shut up. Fantastically good idea?
Maybe not. The players agreed to take the money. They never agreed to do it in exchange for the loss of one of the fundamental rights in this country – to assemble and lawfully protest injustice. So how long before one sideline is vacant while the other is not? Or 40 players are standing while a half dozen sit angrily in the locker room? Great way to build team chemistry, fellas.
But that wasn’t bad enough. The owners then continued their phony “war’’ on violence by continuing to take the head out of football in a way that will make it nearly impossible to tackle moving human beings without running the risk of being thrown out of the game if truly enforced.
The owners voted at the same meeting that if a player leads with the top of his helmet and strikes another player while initiating contact he will be ejected. Isn’t initiating contact what the damn game is all about?
They showed three examples of such plays. Two of them seemed highly debatable. How long before this results in the same hypocrisy and chaos that their absurd “catch’’ rule wrought?
"It's important when we say 'to initiate contact,' because there will be some situations where players lower their head to defend themselves, they're not initiating contact, they're defending themselves,’’ VP of officiating Al Riveron tried to explain.
The hits that will be subject to ejection then are the ones in which the player initiating contact has, in someone’s opinion, an unobstructed path to his target and, instead of choosing another option, clearly decides to lower his head and use his helmet as a weapon. Those examples, Riveron claimed, were obvious on video. They were?
The league then showed three such plays, two of which seemed far from “clear.’’ At least not if you actually wanted someone to make a tackle rather than pad the phony offensive stats that are swelling out of control and turning the game into a joke.
Ejections will be made on the field, but will be reviewable by Riveron and his team in the officiating command center in New York, making this even more likely to cause anger and animus among players and fans, not to mention coaches
"We will not bring the referee over, we will not talk to the replay official," he said. "Immediately, when I learn in New York that there's an ejection, I will ask the network, 'Give me everything you've got.' I will take a look at it, I will rule on it, and I will say, 'Yes, he's ejected,' or, 'No, leave him in the game.' "
In other words, Big Brother will now be running even more of the game from a safe location far from the battlefields.
The league quickly covered itself in the case of Tom Brady diving forward on a sneak however, claiming quarterbacks and runners lowering their head was fine because they were dropping into “a defensive position.’’ Hey, you’re either going forward with the top of your hat making contact with someone else or you aren’t. But not in the NFL as these guys want to see it.
In Roger Goodell’s National Frauds League that’s what it has become when the owners make pronouncements. “Fake news’’ certainly applies much of the time.
You are subject to ejection for using the top or crown of your helmet to strike another player…unless you aren’t. And you’re free to protest in America because men and women fought for decades for such rights (not for a piece of cloth or a song, by the way)…unless you play in the NFL.
When the fall comes we’ll see what happens next but Pandora already knows. Missed tackles, missing players, endless replays, disputed fines, angry fans and no solutions to the real problems the game faces. Pandoro would be proud.
"We want people to be respectful of the national anthem," Goodell said. "We want people to stand -- that's all personnel -- and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That's something we think we owe. [But] we were also very sensitive to give players choices."
What about the menu choices? One wonders how many of those unanimous owners are prepared to order their personnel selling watered-down beer and overpriced pizza or serving drinks in luxury boxes to make sure those folks “treat the moment in a respectful fashion” by shutting down sales?
I wouldn’t count on it and I wouldn’t advise those hash slingers and bar maids to protest about it. That’s not allowed in the NFL’s America. Only hypocrisy is.