BALTIMORE — The conversations are taking place all over the NFL, in various settings and between different combinations of players, coaches, owners and league leaders. On Sunday in Baltimore, it was Ravens Coach John Harbaugh talking to Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, before the Ravens and Steelers played at M&T Bank Stadium.
“Coach Harbaugh has done a lot of things for the military. . . . It was just a very friendly conversation regarding all the events that have transpired and how we as sort of players, coaches and the union can make this right,” Villanueva, the former Army Ranger who has been a high-profile figure in the recent national debate about patriotism, unity and protests by NFL players during the national anthem, said later Sunday.
The NFL spent much of last week trying to figure out how to move forward on the issue. Commissioner Roger Goodell met with a group of players and owners on Tuesday night in New York. But as the league attempts to orchestrate its end game to all of this, here’s the problem: There is no quick and easy solution, because the interests of the league and the players who are protesting are divergent.
“At this point, this whole kneeling [or] standing up is a much bigger issue than the things that we’re asking for as a league,” Villanueva said Sunday. “We’re trying to be conscious of social issues. We’re also trying to be very respectful of the flag. And how it’s being demonstrated has taken a much larger stage than the actions on the field.”
The NFL just played its second Sunday of games since President Trump intensified the controversy over players taking a knee during the anthem by using crass language to say that those who do so should be fired. This week, fewer players knelt.
On Sunday in Baltimore, Villanueva was joined by his Steelers teammates on the sideline, standing for the anthem. A week earlier in Chicago, the Steelers had decided not to be on the sideline for the anthem, although Villanueva stood at the front of a tunnel leading to the field, with his hand over his heart.
The Ravens seemed to seek a compromise solution Sunday, with their players taking a knee before the anthem. The crowd was asked to join the players and the Ravens organization in a prayer to embrace kindness, unity, equality and justice for all Americans. The Ravens then, like the Steelers across the field, stood for the anthem. The Ravens’ display drew boos, with some cheers mixed in, from the crowd.
“I’ve heard people say that my colleagues and I are un-American and unpatriotic,” Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece. “Well, we want to make America great. We want to help make our country safe and prosperous. We want a land of justice and equality. True patriotism is loving your country and countrymen enough to want to make it better.”
The Ravens’ gesture Sunday was in line with the Dallas Cowboys’ attempt last Monday night in Arizona to blend the interests of players who wanted to kneel for the anthem and those who wanted to stand for it. Owner Jerry Jones joined Cowboys players and coaches in locking arms and taking a knee on the field before the anthem. The Cowboys then stood and returned to their sideline and remained standing for the anthem.
It raises the question: Is a protest still a protest if it’s a compromise? Protest is, by definition, necessarily provocative. Some players have concerns that the original message of the movement started last season by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, has been lost. Kaepernick took a knee to protest what he viewed as racial inequality in the U.S. and police brutality toward African Americans.
Those who took exception to the form of the players’ protests, including Trump, have made the national debate about patriotism. NFL owners reacted to Trump with statements of support for players and shows of unity in which some locked arms with players on the field. Players said they appreciated the support. But is it all about inequality, patriotism or unity?
“I think these conversations make people uncomfortable, and I think that’s a way for them to deflect from the issues that we really want to talk about and steer the narrative in a different direction,” 49ers safety Eric Reid, who protested alongside Kaepernick last season, told ESPN last week.
The league has a business to run, and it must run that business while avoiding alienating fans on both sides of this polarizing, emotionally charged issue. At least for now, the league is drawing the ire of both those angry about the players’ protests, as well as those supportive of them and upset that Kaepernick remains without a job. The league is acutely aware of this.
The volume undoubtedly will be turned down at some point, though perhaps not soon. One former NFL general manager expressed wariness in recent days that any team contemplating signing Kaepernick must fret that Trump will return to the issue at some point and, the next time, that team would find itself bearing the brunt of the president’s scorn. But there is a country for Trump to run, after all. Surely the NFL won’t remain so prominent on Trump’s agenda forever.
The NFL, which dealt last season with sagging TV ratings, ultimately will be left to assess whether its business model has suffered lasting damage — and, if so, to what extent. Some players, meanwhile, have urged the league to become more involved in supporting their activism. And that, Jenkins argues, is the ultimate end game in all of this.
Jenkins wrote in The Post that he appreciated the support of a white teammate, Chris Long. He wrote about taking Long around Philadelphia to speak to police and community leaders, of going to bail hearings and talking to public defenders.
“This is where we need to point our attention now,” Jenkins wrote. “Not to guys demonstrating but to the issues and work to be done in cities across the country.”