In October 2017, NFL executives, owners, and players met behind closed doors to discuss the many criticisms from President Donald Trump of the national anthem protests.
The conversation was supposed to be secret, but Ken Belson and Mark Leibovich at the New York Times obtained a recording of the three-hour meeting. Belson and Leibovich described the meeting as “extraordinary” — a reaction to Trump’s remarks sparking “a level of public hostility that the N.F.L. had never experienced.”
This goes back to protests that took off last year, when more and more NFL players began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Trump responded to the protests on social media, tweeting “#StandForOurAnthem” and that NFL players “should not be allowed to disrespect … our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem.” Trump’s tweets in particular elevated the protests to a bigger spotlight, polarizing the issue between Trump’s supporters and his critics.
At the meeting, Belson and Leibovich reported, players were largely focused on what they saw as the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, who launched the protests and has not been signed by another team since he left the San Francisco 49ers.
“I feel like he was hung out to dry,” Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate, said. “Everyone in here is talking about how much they support us. … 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.”
But team owners and executives were more focused on responding to the public criticisms and how they were hurting the league’s bottom line — meaning jersey sales and TV ratings.
“This kneeling,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft 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. It’s divisive and it’s horrible.”
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie also chimed in, calling Trump’s presidency “disastrous.” He said, “We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else. We have to find a way to not be divided and not get baited.”
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, meanwhile, told the players that the protests have to stop: “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.”
Some of the participants in the meeting were very ambitious, characterizing the protests and the attention to them as a chance for the NFL to do something big. By the end of the meeting, Belson and Leibovich reported, “owners had quoted Thomas Paine (the Falcons owner Arthur Blank), invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma march ([Stephen] 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 furor around the protests has died down since last fall, as the demonstrations themselves have dwindled and Trump has stopped commenting on them. But at least for the moment, the protests led the general public — and NFL leaders — to focus on some of the issues initially raised by Kaepernick.
For more on the NFL protests, read Vox’s explainer.