With the union and the league fully engaged on the issue, Smith said there’s no reason to back off because the regular season is drawing near.
By Jason Reid
Despite the NFL’s push to reach a resolution on its national anthem policy before the regular season kicks off, the NFL Players Association would support maintaining the current standstill throughout the season, the union’s leader told The Undefeated on Monday.
Optimistic about the union’s ongoing dialogue with the commissioner’s office, DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, has no interest in meeting a contrived deadline in an attempt to bring closure to the issue that has bedeviled the NFL since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat during the anthem two years ago this month. Smith would prefer to have owners support players as both sides develop a workable anthem policy, taking more time to build trust as they navigate complex matters of race relations and social justice.
“We didn’t create the anthem policy. They [owners] did. It’s a strange world to then admit that you impose this policy without us, then try to somehow put some deadline or steadfast objective outcomes for an issue that we didn’t create.”
“I don’t believe we should have a drop-dead day,” Smith said. “These are intractable issues that players feel passionately about. It’s issues of race. It’s issues of inequality. It’s issues of criminal reform and social justice reform. Now, I certainly understand the mentality of some people in the league who think that things should begin and things should end.
“There should be order. There should be control. But … why is it such a bad thing for owners and league officials to hear directly from players who are protesting? Why is it such a bad thing to have a continued discussion about how the league supports its players who are supporting these issues?”
Speaking at Georgetown University before it was announced that he would receive the school’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center’s annual leadership award, Smith touched on a wide range of topics stemming from the fallout of the new civil rights movement in the NFL that Kaepernick ignited by shining a light on police brutality. Pilloried over its anthem policy approved in May in Atlanta, the NFL recently suspended enforcement of the directive, and the union agreed to delay moving forward with the grievance it filed over the new rules the league implemented. During their “listening tour,” league officials have spoken with veteran players about their reasons for protesting during “The Star-Spangled Banner” and sought their guidance on what steps to take next.
Said Smith, “There have been times when we have tried to engage the league on reaching mutually acceptable solutions, and they’ve chosen not to do that. This is one of the first times where they have tried to seek a mutual solution. I think it’s positive.”
Under the new policy that wasn’t enforced in the opening week of the preseason schedule, during which several players demonstrated, players who are on the field are required to stand for the playing of the anthem. Players have the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer. Clubs will be subject to a fine if a player or any other member of an organization fails to show respect for the anthem (under the previous policy, players were not required to stand for the performance). Players will no longer be allowed to sit or kneel, which dozens did the past two seasons after Kaepernick led the way. The league has empowered clubs to discipline players and other employees for violating the policy. The New York Giants and New York Jets have said they will not fine or suspend players who demonstrate.
After initially denying the union a seat at the table during the run-up to revising the policy (in the previous iteration of the game operations manual, players were not required to stand during the anthem), the NFL decided to partner with the NFLPA shortly before training camps opened. Owners, wary about backlash from some fans who view the demonstrations as being intended to disrespect the military and police, had hoped to shut the door on the issue during the offseason. With the union and the league finally fully engaged on the issue, there’s no reason to back off because the regular season is drawing near, Smith said.
“We didn’t create the anthem policy. They [owners] did,” Smith said. “It’s a strange world to then admit that you impose this policy without us, then try to somehow put some deadline or steadfast objective outcomes for an issue that we didn’t create.”
The fact is, in the court of public opinion, the NFL suffers from the perception that it doesn’t support its players — especially on matters of social justice. And that’s even after owners committed $89 million to bankroll social justice causes considered important to African-American communities. In the NBA, all players are required to stand while the anthem is performed. The NBA, however, is considered a much more progressive league than the NFL in terms of diversity in coaching and team leadership. Bottom line: The perception is that the NBA truly support its players much more than the NFL backs its guys.
In that area, perhaps the NFL could strengthen its image by maintaining the status quo on the anthem policy and spend the whole season attempting to build goodwill with players by continuing to listen to them. If owners suddenly take a hard-line stance in fear of facing widespread protests early in the season, they’ll likely only increase the players’ resolve to push back.
Clearly, there’s a better path to take, Smith said. And the sides are currently on it.
“Both sides know how to fight,” Smith said. “But one thing is that fighting over this issue is much worse than where we are right now.”
Kaepernick started a movement on Aug. 14, 2016, the 49ers’ preseason opener, when he sat on the bench during the anthem to increase attention on racial injustice. His protest went unreported until the third preseason game on Aug. 26. Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem in the final preseason game, and teammate Eric Reid was the first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick.
Kaepernick and Reid, who have filed collusion grievances against the NFL, are awaiting word from an arbitrator about whether their processes will move forward. Kaepernick has been unemployed since opting out of his contract in 2017. Reid is unsigned after becoming a free agent this past offseason.
Smith believes both players still have what it takes to be productive. They’re just not being given a chance, Smith said.
“Colin and Eric … should be in the National Football League. One hundred percent,” Smith said. “Do I believe that they are being unfairly targeted by the league? Yes. And that’s not only what we believe. That’s why we support them and why we’ve been working closely with their lawyers. They should be playing football. Without a doubt.
“We’ve gone through hearings on both” players, Smith said. “There was recently a motion for a summary judgment [the NFL argued that Kaepernick and Reid failed to support their claims]. That matter is in the hands of the arbitrator, but I don’t think there is a legitimate reason for why they’re not playing.”
Smith pushed back against NFL observers who say the union hasn’t done enough to support Kaepernick.
“When it comes to public opinion, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. No one’s entitled to their own facts,” Smith said. “The fact is that when Colin decided he wanted to file a grievance, he retained outside lawyers. We’ve been a part of that litigation, working side by side with them.
“When it comes to the issue of fighting for a player who believes that he has been harmed by the league, the role of the union is to primarily represent him in his grievance. When he sat in that preseason game, the first show of support from his union was from me publicly hours after he did it.”
Smith, whose wife, Karen, is a breast cancer survivor, will receive his Lombardi award during its annual gala on Nov. 17.
“As a personal witness to the incredible impact that Georgetown Lombardi has on the lives of those affected by cancer, I am extremely honored to receive this award,” Smith said. “I am a firm supporter of their mission, and I am proud of the partnership that the NFLPA has forged with Georgetown Lombardi in our continued efforts to raise awareness and funds for cancer research and treatment.”