NFL owners struggled to retain control after Trump's attacks, rise of player protests

Schefter: Meeting called a 'watershed moment' in league history (1:30)

Adam Schefter reports the details of a meeting earlier in the week between Roger Goodell, team owners, team representatives and players to discuss how to move forward regarding protests. (1:30)

As DeMaurice Smith drove Monday morning to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for a flight to his annual locker room meeting with the Buffalo Bills, his phone rang. It was Roger Goodell. The two longtime adversaries -- the NFL Players Association executive director and the NFL commissioner -- had not yet spoken about the previous weekend, when league executives, team owners, coaches and most of the league's 1,664 players scrambled to figure out an appropriate response to President Donald Trump's harsh criticism of a few players' decision to kneel during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Many players were outraged by Trump's comments during a Sept. 22 rally in Huntsville, Alabama, not only because he had mocked the NFL's attempts to make the game safer, but because he had said he would "love" to see an owner remove from the field and fire any "son of a bitch" who chose to kneel during the national anthem.

A small protest, started by quarterback Colin Kaepernick a year ago under President Barack Obama, had now become a league-wide, nationally polarizing crisis under Trump. By Monday, everyone had retreated to their respective worlds. Goodell to his bosses, the NFL team owners who don't want anything interfering with the league's annual $14 billion revenue, and the players to their locker rooms and their families, many of whom had strong opinions about the kneeling and wanted to know what each player intended to do about it. Now Goodell was calling Smith, and the overarching question was whether the league and the union, two entities that never miss a chance to argue, would unify against an unprecedented attack by the president -- or split, again.

"It certainly was my takeaway that the commissioner was looking for a way for the protests to end," Smith said Friday when asked about his 30-minute conversation with Goodell, while declining to offer specifics about what was discussed. Goodell declined to comment, but a league source did not dispute Smith's account. "Knowing the league the way I know the league, they are first and foremost concerned about the impact on their business," Smith said. "That's always their first concern. I mean, who are we kidding?"

Nobody was kidding when many of the NFL's highest-profile owners, including Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, expressed concerns last week that the optics of hundreds of players kneeling, sitting or remaining in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem had alienated many fans at a particularly perilous moment for the NFL. TV ratings for many of this year's games have continued a slide that began last season; some league sponsors have grown skittish about the backlash; and most surveys have shown that a majority of NFL fans are turned off by the politicization of the game.

To the commissioner's suggestion that the protests should end, Smith said, "My only response was, 'I don't have the power to tell our players what to do.' ... At the end of the day, this is a group of players who are exercising their freedom. There is no room for me to snap my fingers and tell our players, 'It's time for you to give up a freedom.' Just the idea offends me. It's almost as if the players are being asked, 'What's it going to take for you to stop asking to be free or to be treated like an American?'"

WHAT WOULD IT TAKE? That was a central question during one of the most chaotic and divisive weeks of Goodell's 11-year tenure, according to more than a dozen interviews conducted by Outside the Lines with players, owners, league, union and team executives, and other executives briefed on confidential meetings, most of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Last weekend's games were not just a protest about police brutality and racial inequality, which is why the still-jobless Kaepernick said he sat during the playing of the anthem before taking a knee a year ago. It was also a protest against authority. Players defied the preference of many of their coaches and owners by kneeling; the Steelers, Seahawks and Titans defied league rules by remaining in the locker room during the anthem, and Goodell let them slide. Led by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan at Wembley Stadium in London, some owners locked arms on the sidelines with their players. A league famous for its control grappled with how to deal with losing it, with the president of the United States steadfast in his determination to keep the issue dominating the national conversation.

And so on Tuesday afternoon, 48 hours after the protests had defined a football Sunday, about 25 team owners entered the league's headquarters at 345 Park Avenue in New York City for routine committee meetings that quickly became anything but. Many barely paid attention during a stadium finance presentation. Finally, in the late afternoon, there was a meeting with owners and league executives to discuss what had happened. By then, Trump had tweeted nearly two dozen times attacking the NFL and its players. Tempers were hot.

Some owners were angry that Joe Lockhart, the NFL's executive vice president of communications who worked as President Bill Clinton's press secretary, had told reporters on a Monday conference call that the players' words and actions on the subjects of police brutality and racism were "what real locker room talk is." It was a brazen shot at Trump, who was captured in a 2005 video talking, in explicit terms, about grabbing women by their vaginas but later dismissed the video's contents as "locker room banter." Owners, many of whom had supported Trump and seven of whom had donated at least $1 million to him, felt that Lockhart had unnecessarily politicized the league's response. One owner barked angrily at Lockhart, who declined to comment about the matter, echoing a sentiment that most of them -- especially Jones -- shared: Nobody wanted to engage in a political mud fight with the White House, even if "they were all pissed at the president," a league source said.

Then the topic turned to the subject of angry fan bases and nervous sponsors. The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, in particular, each had received significant blowback from their fan bases and sponsors. Fans had booed the Patriots and Cowboys for kneeling, and disgusted fans posted on Facebook and YouTube videos of them burning NFL merchandise.

Most teams had already spoken with their coaches and player captains about how to proceed this weekend. After nearly 20 of its players knelt last Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots, for instance, had decided Monday that they would no longer kneel but would put one hand over their heart and the other around the shoulder of the nearest teammate. The protests of the prior weekend's games had unfolded mostly at the discretion of the players, a rarity for the league. Goodell did not send out a mandate, which owners agreed had been wise. Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney II told Goodell last weekend that the Steelers had planned to stay in the locker room during the anthem, despite it being against the wishes of both men. Still, on this issue, the commissioner didn't try to impose his will. On this Sunday, it was better to let each club handle the matter on its own.

Going forward, however, some owners preferred a league-wide directive. Dan Snyder, the Washington Redskins' owner and who declined to comment through a spokesman, argued that the protests needed to end because of the danger that the issue posed to the league's bottom line. A "$40 million" NFL sponsor was considering pulling out, he told his fellow owners. Snyder kept repeating "$40 million" to add emphasis, amusing a clique of owners who did the math and realized that, after the players' cut of the shared revenue, it amounted to considerably less than $1 million per club -- hardly a game-changing sum for a league that last year had an average per-team profit of $101 million.

In the meeting, many owners wanted to speak, but the discussion soon was "hijacked," in the words of one owner, by Jones, a $1 million contributor to Trump's inaugural committee fund and who declined comment through a spokesman. The blunt Hall of Famer mentioned that he had spoken by phone, more than once over the past 24 hours, with Trump. Jones said the president, who only a few years ago tried to buy the Buffalo Bills, had no intention of backing down from his criticism of the NFL and its players. Jones -- who a day earlier for Monday Night Football in Arizona had orchestrated a team-wide kneeling before the anthem ahead of rising to stand when it started to play -- repeated his refrain that the protests weren't good for the NFL in the long run. Most agreed, but some felt that even if the league did lose a small percentage of fans due to the protests, it also could gain a new audience. There was a general, if fanciful, consensus that even a short-term financial hit could benefit the league in the long term, especially if the league and the union could join in solidarity behind a single plan. That's how the league's marketing department was planning to proceed, even if some of the rough ideas fell flat. One idea had all players wearing a patch on their jerseys that would read, "Team America." An owner briefed on the proposal simply shook his head: "We need to do better than that."

By the time Jones concluded his remarks -- and by the time the meeting ended in the early evening -- nobody had pitched a concrete plan about how to move forward.

A LITTLE WHILE later, eight players from five teams -- linebacker Jonathan Casillas of the New York Giants, safety Devin McCourty and special teams star Matthew Slater of the Patriots, defensive end Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles, linebacker Christian Kirksey, cornerback Jason McCourty, and tight end Randall Telfer of the Cleveland Browns, and offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum of the Jets -- entered the League Boardroom at the NFL offices and took seats at the giant wood table with the league logo as its centerpiece. The meeting itself was representative of not only the entire week but of the past few years, defined by discord and distrust on the issues separating the league and the union. Smith said last week that Goodell never mentioned the meeting with players during their Monday call, and that he first got word of it after hearing that Troy Vincent, the NFL executive vice president of football operations, had reached out directly to at least a dozen team captains to invite them to attend. A league source, however, says that team owners, not Vincent, invited the players, at the suggestion of Goodell. Both sides agree that Smith and other union executives were not invited until Tuesday morning, when Goodell asked them to attend in an email. But by then, it was too late. Smith was on the road for a series of locker room meetings and couldn't attend.

Even something as simple as convening a mutually beneficial owners-players summit had ripped open scars. In a small protest of their own, more than a dozen players who initially had agreed to attend ended up canceling after hearing the union's leaders were initially unaware of the plans. While the NFL blamed the chaos of the week for the chaos surrounding the meeting, Smith was sure that Goodell had attempted "an end run" around him with key players. "I viewed that as insulting to our players' leadership," Smith said. "The league tries to use some of our guys to give them cover, to get them on their side. Our players' leadership wasn't pleased, and I wasn't pleased."

When the meeting commenced, Kraft, Rooney, Khan, John Mara of the Giants, Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins, Jeffrey Lurie of the Eagles, and Jimmy Haslam of the Browns were among the owners in attendance. Some of the owners sat next to the players at the table, rather than across from them. The meeting was understood to be confidential; no senior league executives were permitted to attend except for Vincent. Early on, one of the players pointedly told the assembled owners -- in particular Kraft, who this year gave his longtime friend Trump a Super Bowl 51 champions' ring -- "We know a lot of you are in with Trump. This meeting is going on because the players think that some of the people that they work for are with his overall agenda, and that's not in the players' favor."

"I'm not with Trump," Ross said, alluding to the president's comments about the players. "And I don't mind anyone printing that anywhere."

All eyes turned to Kraft, who had been one of the strongest advocates of hosting this meeting with players. He said that players, while within their rights to peacefully protest, needed to understand that, at the end of the day, the NFL was a business, and that everyone in the room needed to think about it that way and to think about the people they entertain.

Several other owners echoed Kraft's concerns that the president found a way to endanger the sport's popularity with a divisive, politically charged issue. "This could kill football and end our business," an owner said.

The session was off to an ugly start. A few owners believed the players were delivering union talking points. Players saw something more monumental: The owners found themselves in a position of weakness; their worry about the impact on their business had become a crisis, and they needed the players to help them. "For the first time, the owners are afraid of the players," Smith later said. "It has less to do with money and it has more to do with control. The owners are used to being in control -- and they aren't on this. They know it. They hate it."

During the two-hour meeting, the players also noticed there was no consensus among owners about what to do. Each owner was dealing with the protest differently, and the differing approaches -- and ideas -- seemed to rile up themselves more than anything the players had said.

Toward the end, though, the tone of the conversation had turned, with players openly expressing their views and the owners listening. It felt more like an honest dialogue. In the Giants' locker room two days later, Casillas thanked Trump for what he had said during his rally because it had opened a meaningful conversation. He told reporters, "I know the owners for sure don't want us kneeling," and players even agreed that kneeling might not be productive, because the message had been misconstrued. "Maybe we gotta figure something else out, another way to maybe get across the reason the protests happened from the beginning. ... There was nothing we decided we were going to do collectively. It was a very conducive meeting."

"I think both sides got to walk away with an understanding of how each other felt," McCourty later said.

It was clear to several, but not all, owners that there was a divide between race, age, class and social stature with the players, and it would be incumbent on owners to try to transcend it, whether they wanted to or not. Smith got a briefing on the players' meeting with the owners on Wednesday morning as he drove to Cincinnati for a locker room session with the Bengals. He was frustrated. The crisis has been mentally exhausting for some players, taking a toll on their ability to perform their jobs. "The owners had no problem whatsoever giving up $10 billion worth of revenue when they decided they were going to cancel football for an entire year," Smith later said, referring to the owners' 2011 lockout. "Now they want to make an economic argument to the players that exercising their freedom somehow hurts the business."

But what frustrated Smith and several players most was the deeply offensive subtext of the questions, as if nobody was acknowledging that the players' issue -- which was now the owners' issue, too -- was bigger than the NFL. Lockhart would later insist that the conversations had "brought our teams together," but Smith disagreed: "It was offensive to me because, historically, there was always a question of, 'What is it going to take in order for us to buy your voice of protest?' The problem with that is, No. 1, it assumes we are doing this because we want something from the owners. And second, it's clear that once you commoditize a freedom, like the right to free speech, once you've sold it, you can never use it again."

ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, several owners filed into a conference room on the sixth floor of the league's headquarters, which featured a large, football-shaped table. The meeting was supposed to be a standard committee update about business ventures, followed by a conference call on the protests. But upon Goodell's suggestion, the rest of the owners who were at Park Avenue ended up coming into the room. Goodell began by recapping the previous night's meeting with the players. He indicated that it began with the players seeming reserved and sticking to their union talking points, but things improved as it went on. He made clear that this wasn't going to be an issue that would go away overnight and that, moving forward, owners needed to find a solution that worked for everyone.

"We can't just tell them to stop," Goodell said of the players' protests.

Many owners immediately argued otherwise. "We need to find a way where Trump doesn't win," one said, and that meant using leverage as employers to end the protests. Another said, "We'll get our guys in line." It was clear to many in the room that this was a regional issue as much as a political one, with owners' tolerance for kneeling shaped more by their fans in local markets than their own personal politics. Dan Snyder, who had joined his players in arms at FedEx Field on Sunday night, was in an especially divisive market and was particularly dismissive of the kneeling. "It was raw for a lot of owners," an owner says. Some teams, such as the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos, had been dealing with the protests for more than a year, and 49ers owner Jed York argued that it was a nuanced topic with no easy answers and that it would take time to navigate. "We need to respect First Amendment rights, regardless of our personal feelings of the actions involved," York told the room.

The session also felt like a lot of owners' meetings, with nobody running it, owners sitting behind poker faces as they wondered whether to express an opinion and, finally, as usual, Jerry Jones filling the void. As much as any owner, Jones doesn't do anything that isn't good for the NFL's business interests. He reiterated that he was not in favor of the kneeling, but that the owners had to find a sincere way to listen to the players' concerns. "How do we address the root issue for the players on this?" he wondered aloud. "In the long run, it's not good to kneel. People don't want football to be politicized, but there's a need to do something to listen to our players and help them."

The meeting soon ended, without a clear path forward. The ideas to resolve the crisis were vague: reverting to what occurred until 2008, when the timing of the national anthem was for it to be finished before players left locker rooms; allowing players who want to kneel to stay in the locker room while the rest of the players stand; focusing on hosting social justice forums; finding a way to show moments of unity outside of the national anthem; scheduling events that demonstrate support for troops by the league and players. The players and owners weren't as unified as they would later publicly state, but as one owner says, "We've gotten out of crisis management and into, 'How do we do this correctly?' There was a chance that we didn't deal with it correctly -- and it had passed."

As always with the NFL, there was soon a game to be played. The night after the owners flew out of New York, the Packers and the Chicago Bears entered Lambeau Field for a Thursday game. There was as much anticipation for the national anthem as there was for the game between the NFL's oldest rivalry. Both teams stood shoulder to shoulder on the line where the sideline meets the field. As the crowd cheered, "U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A," Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers stood with his hands on his hips, waiting for the moment, with cameras zeroed in. Until recently, Rodgers had made a career out of not revealing many of his true convictions, but he seemed to have found a voice as an advocate for the protests, one of the few star quarterbacks to do so.

Soon, it was time. Tight end Richard Rodgers locked his right arm into Aaron Rodgers' left, and receiver Randall Cobb linked his left with his quarterback's right. The chain continued down the sideline, a wall of white trimmed with yellow and green. So it went with the Bears on the other side. Nobody knelt. Uniformed military stood around an American flag so large that it looked like a picture framed by the field. Earlier in the week, Rodgers had asked all fans who planned on attending the game to join the Packers in linking arms. Some did; most didn't. It was hard to tell if any of the disparities in opinion or scale had been transcended, but after the anthem, the fans cheered what they wanted to cheer. Then Rodgers stalked the sideline, hugging any teammate who wanted a hug. It was a moment before the moment, and for the next few hours, at least, everyone was watching the same game.