The players sounded aggrieved. They wanted to know why Colin Kaepernick was, they believed, being blackballed by the owners. The owners sounded panicked about their business under attack, and wanted to focus on damage control.
NFL owners, players and league executives, about 30 in all, convened urgently at the league’s headquarters on Park Avenue in October, nearly a month after President Trump began deriding the league and its players over protests during the national anthem.
It was an extraordinary summit; rarely do owners and players meet in this manner. But the president’s remarks about players who were kneeling during the anthem had catalyzed a level of public hostility that the NFL had never experienced. In the spirit of partnership at the meeting, the owners decided that they and the players should sit in alternating seats around the large table that featured an NFL logo in the middle.
“Let’s make sure that we keep this confidential,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said to begin the session.
The New York Times has obtained an audio recording of the roughly three-hour meeting, and several people in the room corroborated details of the gathering. The unvarnished conversation reveals how the leaders of the most dominant sports league in the country and several of its most outspoken players confronted an unprecedented moment — mostly by talking past one another.
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The players sounded aggrieved. After discussing a proposal to finance nonprofit groups to address player concerns, they wanted to talk about why Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who started the anthem protests to highlight social injustice and police brutality against African-Americans, was, they believed, being blackballed by the owners. The owners sounded panicked about their business under attack, and wanted to focus on damage control.
“If he was on a roster right now, all this negativeness and divisiveness could be turned into a positive,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long said at the meeting.
Long said he did not wish to “lecture any team” on what quarterbacks to sign, but “we all agree in this room as players that he should be on a roster.” The owners’ responses were noncommittal. The Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said that fighting for social justice is not “about one person.”
The New England Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft pointed to another “elephant in the room.”
“This kneeling,” he said.
“The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission that I don’t feel is in the best interests of America,” said Kraft, who is a longtime supporter of Mr. Trump’s. “It’s divisive and it’s horrible.”
The owners were intent on finding a way to avoid Trump’s continued criticism. The president’s persistent jabs on Twitter had turned many fans against the league. Lurie, who called Trump’s presidency “disastrous,” cautioned against players getting drawn into the president’s tactics.
“We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else,” Lurie said. “We have to find a way to not be divided and not get baited.”
The Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula sounded anguished over the uncertainty of when Trump would take another shot at the league. “All Donald needs to do is to start to do this again,” Pegula said. “We need some kind of immediate plan because of what’s going on in society. All of us now, we need to put a Band-Aid on what’s going on in the country.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan countered that the worst was behind them. “All the damage Trump’s going to do is done,” he said.
The owners kept returning to one bottom-line issue: Large numbers of fans and sponsors had become angry about the protests. Boycotts had been threatened and jerseys burned and — most worrisome — TV ratings were declining.
Pegula complained that the league was “under assault.” He unloaded a dizzying flurry of nautical metaphors to describe their predicament. “To me, this is like a glacier moving into the ocean,” he said. “We’re getting hit with a tsunami.” He expressed his wish that the league never be “a glacier crawling into the ocean.”
The Houston Texans owner Bob McNair was more direct. He urged the players to tell their colleagues to, essentially, knock off the kneeling. “You fellas need to ask your compadres, fellas, stop that other business, let’s go out and do something that really produces positive results, and we’ll help you.”
After the Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross raised the idea of a “march on Washington” by NFL players and owners, Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate and the first player to kneel alongside him, brought the discussion back to Kaepernick.
Reid, who attended the meeting wearing a Kaepernick T-shirt over his dress shirt and tie, said that his former teammate was being blackballed.
“I feel like he was hung out to dry,” Reid said of Kaepernick. “Everyone in here is talking about how much they support us.” The room fell quiet. “Nobody stepped up and said we support Colin’s right to do this. We all let him become Public Enemy No. 1 in this country, and he still doesn’t have a job.”
Pegula offered that he thought the league was battling a perception and “media problem.” He said it would be great for the league to find a compelling spokesman — preferably a player — to promote all of the good things they were doing together. He suggested that the league could learn from the gun lobby in this regard.
“For years we’ve watched the National Rifle Association use Charlton Heston as a figurehead,” Pegula said. “We need a spokesman.”
Anquan Boldin, a former NFL wide receiver who was at the meeting, said that owners needed to be spokesmen, too. “Letting people know it’s not just the players that care about these issues, but the owners, too,” Boldin said.
Pegula didn’t address Boldin’s point except to add that it would be important for the spokesman to be black. (None of the NFL’s 32 owners are black.)
“For us to have a face, as an African-American, at least a face that could be in the media,” Pegula continued, “we could fall in behind that.”
Kaepernick’s name was not mentioned again. He continues to pursue a labor grievance accusing the owners of colluding to keep him out of the league. He remains unsigned.
Before the meeting ended, owners had quoted Thomas Paine (the Falcons owner Arthur Blank), invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma march (Ross of the Dolphins) and expressed great hope for what they all could accomplish together (“We have a chance to do something monumental,” declared the Giants owner John Mara).
The meeting concluded with some participants saying how positive the session had been, and how they would all keep talking. Goodell told the group that another meeting was being scheduled. They planned to issue a “joint statement” to underscore their shared commitment.
Kraft said the statement should reflect how everyone had come together for a good cause. “It would be good if you could work in the word ‘unified’ or ‘unity’ in some fashion,” he said, referring to the joint statement.
“We could say simply, today we had a reset, and the players’ issues are our issues, and we recognize them and will work together,” Ross said.
“I like the language of ‘our issues,’ ” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the players’ union.
About an hour later, the league released its joint statement:
“Today owners and players had a productive meeting focused on how we can work together to promote positive social change and address inequality in our communities. NFL executives and owners joined NFLPA executives and player leaders to review and discuss plans to utilize our platform to promote equality and effectuate positive change. We agreed that these are common issues and pledged to meet again to continue this work together.”