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NFL could have solved anthem issue with communication

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA – The Boogeyman isn’t just a mythical creature created to frighten children or a failed WWE gimmick, it’s something we are all capable of envisioning and that thesis was again validated by so many who believe the President of the United States is somehow responsible for the national-anthem mess that has the NFL chasing its own tail.

As the POTUS, Donald Trump certainly possesses something defined as the “bully pulpit” and when you’re a business and the Prez calls you out for something your employees did, it can be a scary proposition, especially if it’s a Commander in Chief like Trump who doesn’t mind using hyperbole as a weapon against his perceived opponents.

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In this case, however, the American political left has created a Boogeyman with Trump, even though common sense says he really doesn’t have the tangible power to compel the NFL to create any policy.

To single out the league legislatively the POTUS would need Congress to buy into his own personal revenge scenarios which is laughable and taking aim at the antitrust exemption would also mean nothing because the NFL’s is very limited and geared at television rights something that is already locked up through 2022.

If Trump really did have the power some in the low-information crowd believe the league would have caved the minute he called players protesting social injustices by kneeling or raising a fist during the anthem “sons of bitches” but context is almost always lost in translation when emotion is involved.

The issue ignited again this week when Trump rescinded an invitation for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to visit the White House at the 11th hour.

Instead of the Eagles spending Tuesday on the South Lawn of the White House they were on the familiar turf at the NovaCare COmplex after the POTUS nixed things when the White House was informed the Eagles’ delegation would be much smaller than originally anticipated: fewer than 10 people total, a group an NFL source told would include owner Jeffery Lurie, coach Doug Pederson, Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles and the team’s mascot Swoop, along with a few others.

Ironically, both sides of our divisive political environment are thrilled after the recent Wall Street Journal reporting, which revealed that Trump essentially “threatened” the NFL’s most powerful owner — Dallas’ Jerry Jones — with a promise to continue harping about the issue unless and until the league capitulated to his way of thinking, something POTUS Made good on by taking on the Eagles.

“This is a very winning, strong issue for me,” Trump said in a phone call, according to Jones’ sworn deposition in the Colin Kaepernick collusion grievance. “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”

“Tell everybody” is an overt attempt to get Jones to take the message back to his NFL brethren but what does that really mean?

There are really two separate issues here in that Trump’s words mean little to nothing in a collusion case like Kaepernick’s because the onus there is proving that two-or-more entities in the NFL conspired together to keep Kaepernick unemployed. In other words, if Jones took Trump’s words and relayed them to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or another owner and those two then made a conscious decision to keep Colin from a potential job than that’s a winner from a legal standpoint.

However, even if Trump mentioned Kaepernick in every one of his stump speeches from now until the end of his presidency and literally said the words ‘do not hire Kaepernick,’ that’s still not collusion because a “bully pulpit” isn’t the same as having real power in the industry Kap is accusing of blackballing him.

On the other hand, there is now the public relations part of this and the national narrative that “Trump won” and forced the NFL to take a position he approves of, one that is being adopted by both sides of the polarized political fence. Trump supporters obviously like their guy being portrayed as a “winner” and those on the other side who have turned him into a real-life Bond villain embrace the idea that he’s that omnipotent Boogeyman causing all the ills here.

The truth as always lies somewhere in between and there’s really no way to get to it when no one knows where to look.

“It’s [the owners’] right [to enact the anthem policy], but I think it was a dumb move and I think it was clumsy,” Eagles veteran defensive end Chris Long told and other reporters. “I don’t think it was rooted in patriotism. I love this country, I love our vets, the guys protesting love our country and love our vets. I think it was driven by fear of a diminished bottom line, which I already wrote on Twitter. The underlying factor is they’re afraid of the president.”

Long’s teammate, Malcolm Jenkins, heads the NFL players coalition, which last year worked with the league to get a pledge of just under $100 million for projects dealing with racial inequality in the criminal-justice system across the country. Jenkins was so encouraged by the perceived progress that he actually ended his on-field demonstration late last season. Now he’s re-thinking that.

“It’s definitely discouraging because I definitely thought we were moving to a place where players obviously wanted a platform and we could create something that was maybe more effective and bigger,” Jenkins said. “I think there’s been a ton of effort and time put into creating that, but then there’s a decision that kind of undermines that. I thought the league genuinely was building that. But then when you start trying to mandate things, it’s less likely to help.”

“Mandating” might be the ultimate problem here because the league has continued a theme where it’s obvious that they don’t consider its players to be partners.

Many look at Adam Silver and how he handles the NBA and see a partnership even if that perception is far greater than the reality.

Perhaps the biggest false narrative that was circulating all over social media during the aftermath of this controversy was that the NBA collectively bargained its more restrictive rule that dates back over a quarter century. That’s incorrect, of course, and currently, no major sports leagues have a collectively bargained policy on conduct during the anthem. Silver even admitted he has no idea when his rule to stand was implemented but it’s been around since he started at the league office which was 1992.

What the NBA did do once the Kaepernick-inspired protests started gaining traction in the public psyche was issue a memo reinforcing its rule by also offering to work with any players seeking a voice to amplify issues they might be passionate about, a tactic some point to as an indication that league has a better relationship with its players.

However, even that is a bit of revisionist history. The 2011 NBA lockout, which was solely designed to scale back the players’ percentage of basketball-related income or BRI and it did in a big way. The current harmony is directly tied to the dramatic spike in television revenue which increased salaries dramatically anyway.

The point here is that if the NFLPA negotiates a sharp increase in revenue or the financial pie continues to grow due to another TV spike, the rank and file will agree to stand for the anthem, continue Goodell’s virtually unlimited power in personal-conduct issues, the current weed testing and every other ancillary white-noise topic those who don’t understand what collective bargaining is really about believe are major issues.

It’s a game in sports, you play up these things as important in public and trade them back for more revenue.

What isn’t part of the game, however, is the players feeling marginalized and a simple explanation by the NFL tying the decision to business and business only, something which affects both sides of this equation (players and owners) could have avoided all the acrimony.

“There’s already been a lot of backlash,” Jenkins said. “I don’t think anybody likes being told that they can’t speak up or can’t do something.”

Trump only muddied the issue further this week with his reaction toward the Eagles, which he directly tied into kneeling during the anthem despite the fact no Philadelphia player did that during the 2017-18 season unless you want to go back to cornerback Ron Brooks in the preseason before he was released.

Like most of the Eagles players who spoke on Wednesday after the WH visit was canceled, Eagles All-Pro center Jason Kelce side-stepped questions on whether or not he wanted to be at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but did get poignant when talking about the disconnect in America right now.

“I think it’s a little bit disappointing as a country right now that we’re so divided,” he said. “Everybody is in their little bubble and not willing to listen to others that may think differently than they do. I think that’s the bigger disappointment.”

Jenkins, meanwhile, sent the White House a message Wednesday by not talking.

Appearing in front of a media throng that far outnumbered the players in the locker room, Jenkins held up a series of signs describing why he and other NFL players decided to stage protests during the national anthem. As reporters began asking him questions, Jenkins simply kept showing placards he prepared, the first of which was short and to the point: “You aren’t listening.”

From there the Eagles’ Pro Bowl safety, who has worked tirelessly for social reform in the criminal justice system, shared information he wants others to know.

He should have stopped at “you’re not listening” because communication remains the problem here.

Written by John McMullen

-John McMullen is a national NFL columnist for and the NFL Insider for ESPN South Jersey. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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