Why did the NFL owners blink?

July 26, 2018

Nation sports editor Dave Zirin looks at why the NFL backed down from a policy it just adopted to punish players for protesting during the National Anthem.

THE CABAL of alt-right, morally decrepit billionaires that run the National Football League has officially blinked. The league, in a joint statement with the NFL Players Association, has announced that it is suspending — for now — its own recently adopted policy of fining or suspending players who don’t stand “at respect” for the national anthem, until further review. What accounts for the about-face? It was a tsunami of a backlash that flooded the land of the Dolphins.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the Miami front office had drafted a new team disciplinary policy where players who protest police violence or racial inequity — or Trump, or the iron hand of the NFL executive class — during the anthem could encounter stark punishments. Players on the Dolphins would have faced fines and suspensions of up to four games. (This is a league, keep in mind, which just last month announced that it was suspending Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston for only three games for sexually assaulting an Uber driver.) But within hours of the revelation, the Dolphins — and the NFL — were reeling.

Members of the San Francisco 49ers take a knee against racism
Members of the San Francisco 49ers take a knee against racism

The owner of the Dolphins is Stephen Ross. In addition to being worth close to $8 billion, he is known for starting an organization called RISE, which, as journalist Aaron W. Gordon spotted, boasts on its website that it is a “nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.” Ross is also someone who said that he was in support of the players’ right to protest — or did before the orange smear in the White House started to yip. As he said in his deposition taken as part of the Colin Kaepernick grievance case, “I was totally supportive of [the players] until Trump made his statement.”

How lovely.


STEPHEN ROSS deserves every bit of criticism coming his way. But his own exposed hypocrisies have arisen from the NFL’s broader approach to this question. At the risk of stating the obvious, the league’s punitive policy had nothing to do with the anthem, and everything to do with silencing black voices speaking out against police violence. Imagine if players said that they were taking a knee during the anthem as a tribute to the troops. No one would have blinked. This is about the political substance of what they are doing. The Dolphins were merely the first team tasked with submitting to the league what their punishments will be. As tweeted by ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, “Thirty-one other teams will submit similar statements to NFL declaring how they might potentially discipline players for any number of rules violations as they do each year. And now, all of them will be scrutinized for how they individually address protests. Thirty-one more PR problems for NFL.” This is what the NFL now hopes to head off by stating that its anthem policy is back under review.

The NFL executives were also discovering their ham-handedness was causing a reaction among players beyond what they could handle. Tennessee Titans Pro-Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said he will continue to protest racial inequity during the anthem: “I’m going to take my fine. It is what it is, I ain’t going to let them stop me from doing what I want to do. If they want to have these battles between players and organizations, this is the way it’s going to be.” And that’s not all. When asked about the death threats received by his teammate Delanie Walker when Walker protested during the national anthem last season, Casey said, “There is always going to be blowback, that is what America is about. They always like to go on social media and go hard. It is what it is, at the end of the day, I don’t pay no mind to it. I’m going to do what I do that’s going to bring light to my community. At the end of the day we got to do a job. But I will continue to use my platform to keep on speaking up.”

Stephen Ross wanted to eliminate that platform. It will not happen without a fight. Here’s hoping that every member of the Miami Dolphins takes a knee at the start of the 2018 season, goes all “I am Spartacus“ on Stephen Ross, and blows his desiccated mind. You can’t suspend everybody, but it would be hilarious to see him try.

First published at TheNation.com.

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