By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — On Oct. 17, 11 NFL owners, 12 current players, one former player and three union leaders gathered inside a conference room at the league’s headquarters in New York to discuss the ongoing issues surrounding player protests during the national anthem.
Previously, all we really knew about the meeting was that commissioner Roger Goodell apparently was reading the paper during it. But now, in a long ESPN story written by Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham, we know a lot more about what took place behind closed doors.
While the entire story is worth reading to get the full scope of the climate among NFL owners, here are a few nuggets that will generate the most headlines from the story. Wickersham and Van Natta say that they conducted “nearly two dozen interviews … with owners, league and team executives, players and lawyers briefed on the two days of closed-door meetings.”
Bob McNair Referred To NFL Players As Inmates
This one figures to be the most controversial part of the story.
In a discussion about perhaps instituting a mandate that requires players to stand for the anthem, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair (who donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s campaign last year) used a most-unfortunate term to describe the players who make up his league.
From the story:
McNair, a multimillion-dollar Trump campaign contributor, spoke next, echoing many of the same business concerns. “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” McNair said.
For players who are protesting racial inequality and police brutality in America, this comment from an extraordinarily wealthy owner is going to resonate. And not in a good way. Especially when it was Trump referring to any protesting player as a “son of a bitch” that really forced this issue to the forefront of the American discussion.
McNair, who apologized afterward to NFL executive VP Troy Vincent, has already felt compelled to issue a statement, in which he said it was just a figure of speech and that he would “never characterize our players or our league that way.”
The one problem with McNair claiming he would “never” characterize players by referring to them as “inmates” is that just a couple of weeks ago, he characterized players as inmates.
Terry Pegula Probably Won’t Be Speaking Publicly About The Matter
Bills owner Terry Pegula is a bit of a clumsy public speaker. That’s become clear over the past few years. And this story won’t do much to help him.
From the story:
At one point, Buffalo Bills co-owner Terry Pegula, moved by Anquan Boldin’s story about his cousin being shot and killed by a police officer, complimented him on how impressive he was but kept calling him “Antwan.” Then Pegula suggested that Boldin would be the perfect NFL spokesman on social issues not only because he had walked away from the game to pursue causes but because, the owner said, it couldn’t be a “white owner but needs to be someone who’s black.”
The remark left some people in the room “cringing,” according to the report.
Jerry Jones Might Be Losing His Touch As The League’s Most Influential Owner
A day after the meeting with players, in a meeting with just NFL owners, Jones took the floor and began with this alpha line: “I’m the ranking owner here.”
But apparently, such a statement doesn’t carry as much juice as it used to.
Jones hadn’t been invited by Goodell to that meeting with players, and when he spoke to his fellow owners a day later, he itemized a number of issues plaguing the league’s profits and suggested Goodell’s contract needed to be incentive-based. Jones also got into a “sharp but quick back-and-forth” with Troy Vincent, a scenario described as “nasty.”
In a line that rivaled “I drive a Dodge Stratus!” Jones boldly reminded “the room that rather than league office vice presidents, it was he and fellow owners who had helped build the NFL’s $15 billion-a-year business, and they would ultimately decide what to do.”
As the story said: “It seemed to a few owners as if only Jones could see that an opportunity to regain control of the league was slipping away.”
And considering only nine owners voted to impose a mandate for standing, Jones’ stance on the issue seemingly played a major role in that lopsided vote. The story noted that “some owners had tired of Jones always commandeering such meetings; some were jealous of his power and eager to see him go down.”
It is funny how quickly an owner’s standing in the league can change when he’s fighting the commissioner on an appeal regarding player discipline.
Troy Vincent Threatened 49ers Safety Eric Reid On Anthem Protest
The 49ers have been at the forefront of the player movement, and Jerry Jones and Redskins owner Dan Snyder apparently “felt that if [49ers owner Jed York] had forced [Colin] Kaepernick to stand a year ago, this crisis could have been averted.”
And apparently, the league still is putting a lot of pressure on the 49ers to try to silence the movement. Troy Vinent, according to the story, called 49ers GM John Lynch the weekend before the meeting and “told him that if safety Eric Reid, one of the most ardent protesters, knelt the next day, he shouldn’t ‘bother to show up’ at the players-owners meeting because nobody would take him seriously.”
It falls in line with this note in the story: “Some hard-line owners looked at the meetings as the opportunity to vote on a mandate that would force all players to stand for the anthem.”
The story also said that NFL business executives were unhappy with a PR plan to address the issues, because it distracted from the goal — which “was to persuade all the players to stand for the anthem.”
Robert Kraft Apparently Believes The Players Can Figure Things Out On Their Own
Patriots owner Robert Kraft has publicly expressed his support of players speaking out about things that are important to them. His actions in the meeting reportedly followed that line of thinking.
From the story:
At one point, Robert Kraft mumbled to the two Jets players seated on either side of him, “Can we just shut the f— up and end this?” Everyone on that side of the table laughed, and the optics of the Patriots owner laughing with two players from his team’s rival seemed to have accomplished the mission.
From later in the story:
Kraft, who is close friends with [Donald] Trump, politely rebuked the hardliners, saying that he supported the league’s marketing proposal and predicted the issue would work itself out over time. This argument seemed to find a receptive audience in the room.
At Least One NFL Owner Wishes Roger Goodell Was As Good As Adam Silver
On the point of Goodell’s contract being a bit over the top, at least one unnamed NFL owner agrees with Jones.
From the story:
One owner had complained that NBA commissioner Adam Silver got away with ordering players to stand because, unlike Goodell, he has a good relationship with the union.
It’s worth noting, at least, because if the NFL ever does decide it’s time to install a new commissioner, the disconnect between Goodell and the players (and, many times, credibility) will be a major reason why.
One Proposed NFL Solution: Allow Players To Wear Custom Cleats
Last year, NFL owners and executives held their nose and shielded their eyes when players were allowed to wear cleats which supported causes important to them. The non-uniform cleats were successful in drawing attention to these causes.
And though the NFL generally wants nothing more than to restrict most freedoms from players, the league might be willing to soften up just a bit and “expand” the My Cleats, My Cause initiative.
Roger Goodell Displayed Compassion With Players
Of Roger Goodell’s skills, the ability to display human emotion is not often on the list. But in the meeting with players and owners, Goodell apparently altered his usual course and showed more sympathy with the players.
From the story:
Many times he told the owners they weren’t hearing the players’ core arguments. “We’re all in this together,” Goodell told them. The players and the union executives, who have been at odds with Goodell for years, were impressed. “It was the proudest I’ve ever been in the NFL,” one owner said later. This was Goodell leading in a manner they’d rarely seen: He was not playing a zero-sum game, he was not risk-averse and his compassion clearly lay with the players in the face of severe pressure from hard-line owners and business executives.
Over the years, Goodell has set a low bar for himself to clear with regard to positive leadership qualities. But it seems as though he had one good day. That he was able to accomplish this while also reading newspaper stories is quite a feat.
NFL Owners Might Care More About Profits Than Public Relations
The reason this whole matter is a “crisis” is because the NFL, for the first time in a long time, figures to take a financial hit. The national anthem is just too sacred to many Americans for any type of demonstrations to be regularly staged during its performance.
Yet rather than envisioning a big-picture plan that can include an ear to players while also trying to respect the Americans whose sensibilities are offended, some owners seem to believe a hard-line stance to silence the movement is the best way to go about things.
As the story explained, “a few frustrated owners grumbled about [NFL public relations chief Joe] Lockhart, angry that the league was, as usual, appearing to be reactive in a public relations sense in the face of a crippling crisis.”
Also when talking to owners, Goodell “mentioned that in his market, the defense industry and other sponsors were angry about the protests” though “he didn’t put any dollars on it.”
Overall, the behind-the-scenes story paints a picture of general disagreement and borderline dysfunction among NFL owners, people who are not accustomed to dealing with a situation where they stand to lose a few dollars.