No meeting date. No well-defined agenda. No official invite list. And no shortage of frustration.
The drive to progress between NFL owners and protesting players – celebrated and embraced by both sides only two weeks ago – now lacks a map. And worse yet, neither side can seem to agree on the direction or what the final destination is supposed to look like.
A spate of problems has developed between the league and the NFL Players Coalition representing athletes protesting for racial equality and social justice reform, two sources familiar with talks have told Yahoo Sports. Those problems are part of what led the league to decline what one source framed as a “last minute” invitation from players to a meeting this week, which was ultimately canceled. Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said the NFL and owners “didn’t accept” the invitation to a meeting with players in Philadelphia, which was originally slated for Monday. A source familiar with the NFL’s decision said the invitation didn’t give the appropriate time for the league to pull together the required audience for talks. The source also said that Jenkins’ statements to the media have been “misleading at best” when it comes to the efforts of the NFL to continue talks.
“You can’t send out a letter and just expect everyone to drop what they’re doing and run to [Philadelphia],” the source said. “These are people with schedules who are doing this in good faith. It’s a good faith dialogue. And making it sound like [the NFL] just flatly refused to meet – Malcolm Jenkins knows that’s not true, and frankly, saying it like that is just disingenuous.”
Three sources familiar with the talks said multiple issues are creating problems between the two sides. Chief among them …
Who is responsible for officially bringing Colin Kaepernick into the fold
While the NFL has said it welcomes Kaepernick’s involvement in talks, the league has sent a message that his invitation is up to The Players Coalition. Meanwhile, the NFL Players Association – which is being kept on the peripheral of the talks – has also deferred the Kaepernick invitation to the coalition. Kaepernick has had players urge him to join talks, but as of Monday had received no official date of any meeting, no time, no location and no agenda to be discussed, said sources close to Kaepernick. Nor had he seen a list of attendees produced by The Players Coalition that included his name on it. The sources said that even the letter released to the media over the weekend – which solicited Kaepernick’s involvement – first came to his attention in internet reports.
The truth is, Kaepernick’s involvement has been a lot of drama in the process. The issue of his invitation – or lack of one – during the first round of talks produced a lot of finger-pointing over who was responsible. Kaepernick wanted to be there but was told by someone (allegedly the NFLPA) that he couldn’t attend because the NFL hadn’t agreed to him being a part of the talks. Whether that’s true has been a matter of behind-the-scenes debate. Where it ultimately led was Kaepernick’s legal team coming to one conclusion: that someone from The Players Coalition like Jenkins needed to formally invite him into the process. Especially now that the NFL has said publicly that it welcomes him to the table.
One source close to Kaepernick also said the quarterback isn’t interested in being “used” as a public relations pawn in the meetings. More specifically, if Kaepernick is going to be involved, he wants to know who will be attending and what the specific agenda is, including the goals that are to be achieved at the sit-down.
“Colin wants to take part,” the source said. “But he wants to know that this is going to be for the purposes of getting something accomplished – not just so the NFL can say he was welcomed into the talks.”
The goal is to have McNair present at the next round of talks, even after his comments about “inmates running the prison” became a flashpoint for those who found the reference as demeaning to protesting players. A source said that McNair’s potential presence in the next round of talks is drawing mixed reviews from players, some of whom would like to confront him over the remarks, and others who believe he should be excluded as a “bad actor” in the process. Meanwhile, the NFL has been left to grapple with whether McNair would be a positive or negative influence in the process going forward. It already eliminated Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones from previous talks because of his potential to spark discord between the two sides. Now the NFL must decide whether McNair falls in that category.
Who is “The Decider” for The Players Coalition
Malcolm Jenkins has become the de facto voice for The Players Coalition, but NFL owners are looking for the players to empower someone to make a decision. And Kaepernick’s involvement could complicate who is leading the coalition. Thus far, the players have tried to let everyone have their voice and their concerns heard, but that creates a lot of noise in the room when it comes to specific goals and an agreed-upon plan of action. If the players’ union isn’t going to take the lead in this – and thus far it is primarily an observer in the process – then someone needs to become the primary decision maker for the coalition. Nothing gets accomplished without someone taking responsibility for a decision.
Getting down to the business of actually negotiating a deal
Sources familiar with the talks said this point might be one of the biggest long-term issues blocking significant development between the two sides. The NFL has been reticent to come out and request a trade-off with players. But the reality is that is what owners expect. If the league commits money, power and resources to player activism, the owners want players to agree to a stoppage of protests during game day – and most especially, protests during the national anthem. Right now, the league knows it’s not popular to simply ask for a trade in plain terms. But that is indeed what the league seeks when it advances potential moves forward.
Conversely, the players have not offered a straight-up tradeoff for involvement for one simple reason: The Players Coalition is representing a lot of different voices and viewpoints and it can’t guarantee 100 percent participation. And some of the things that certain players want may be out of reach. For example, if the Seattle Seahawks intend to continue to kneel during the anthem until Kaepernick has an NFL job, that group of players may never be on board with agreeing to an anthem compromise.
Agreeing on the long-term relationship
For the league, ending the anthem protests would be a natural end to the current round of dialogue. And for The Players Coalition, establishing a set of criteria for the league to meet on social activism engagement would also signal a natural completion of the current talks. But there is another pressing matter of where all of this goes beyond this season. Does the NFL see The Players Coalition as a new staple for the league to engage and keep abreast of player issues – separate from the NFLPA?
Will there be annual talks, or does this new territory exist for only this season? And for The Players Coalition, is this a group that will continually renew itself, with new players and ideas? Or is the current collection being brought together for one special purpose and then essentially disbanded afterward?
Sources said the two sides haven’t really considered these questions yet, largely because nothing has been accomplished and the whole viability of this new engagement isn’t known at this point. But if some sort of success and fresh engagement is achieved in the coming weeks and months – improving the lines of communication between ownership and players – there could be some exploration of what that could mean down the road. If both sides ultimately see this whole affair as being a good thing, it could mean a continued relationship for years or more.
But that won’t happen without first agreeing on the basics – things like location, invitation and agenda. That map doesn’t exit at the moment, leaving owners and players parked in frustration for at least one more week.
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