Torrey Smith: NFL 'dropped the ball' with new policy on national anthem

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith said the NFL "dropped the ball" with its new rule that requires players to either stand during the national anthem or stay in the locker room, and he believes it could lead to more problems and protests.

Smith also said the rule, adopted last week at the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta, makes the initial protest by former San Francisco 49ers teammate Colin Kaepernick in September 2016 seem "in vain."

"When you see reactive policy ... I always think that's a problem," Smith said on Tuesday following a voluntary workout. "Especially when the message has been changed and guys aren't against the military and they've been protesting for what Kaepernick originally started, against [police] brutality."

Smith added: "It almost makes it seem like a guy like Kaepernick and Eric Reid and guys who started it originally, like what they did was in vain, like they were villains. That's not the case."

Smith was one of the first NFL players to respond on social media to the league's new rule, suggesting then that the league didn't address the real issue or the initial intent of Kaepernick's protest.

On Tuesday, Smith addressed for the first time why he responded so strongly to the rule.

"You're disappointed but not surprised," Smith said. "At the end of the day, the league is about money, it's a business. To try to silence those guys when they're trying to do the right thing for our country, I don't know what to say about it.

"It could stir things up, which is a problem. Because you're stirring things up because you're being told to be quiet, when it could have been done together to figure out what we can do to move forward and what would be best for the players."

Smith was a teammate of Kaepernick's in 2015 and 2016. He initially called Kaepernick "a legend" for his protests and defended him for standing up for his rights.

"Our locker room is probably better than it was," Smith said last year while with the Philadelphia Eagles, a year removed from being with the 49ers. "I'm probably the only guy before who really talked about issues that are real in our society. ... It's something that we do talk about in our locker room, when you talk about everything else like everyone else does.

"But when Kap made a stance like he did, it made it bigger, and there are more people talking."

Malcolm Jenkins, one of Smith's former teammates in Philadelphia and a key member of the Players Coalition that met with owners last year, said he was disappointed with the NFL's resolution.

"For us to have worked with the league and talked with the league about what we're doing -- to have Roger Goodell come to Philly and show him first-hand what's going on in this community and to do the same thing with Jeffrey Lurie and Robert Kraft; to be in talks with Arthur Blank and [Stephen] Ross down in Miami and all these different owners who have seen first-hand the type of work we've been doing and why players are so passionate about it -- to then come back with a decision like that just lacked the empathy, sensitivity and context that I think players were looking for," Jenkins said.

"It's definitely discouraging, because I thought we were moving to a place where players obviously wanted a platform and we could create something that was maybe more effective and bigger, to which I think there has been a ton of effort and time put into creating that. But this decision kind of undermines that, to where I thought the league was genuinely building at. But when you start trying to mandate things, it seems less like you're helping and more like you're just shutting us up. It's definitely frustrating to see them make that."

In East Rutherford, New Jersey, New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee, was asked about the new policy and President Donald Trump's comments about it to Fox News last week.

Trump said on "Fox & Friends" that "you have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country.'' The comments drew strong reaction from NFL players, including Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall and Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin.

"I think the best way to handle remarks like that is not necessarily a pushback against the remark, but to maintain the focus on the real issue. The real issue isn't players being against a president or against a country. It's about players being for unity, and they want to create an atmosphere with law enforcement and with others in the community that we share in the locker room," Herzlich said.

He said he would love for Trump to visit the Giants' locker room.

"You go in the locker room, and there are guys from every single race, every single demographic, every single religious background, and we are all just a team. We see that, and we see what is possible. I would love Trump to come down here and hang out in our locker room and see what locker room is all clearly about, and how we're talking about our night nurses and our babies. This is what we talk about. It's a family," Herzlich said.

Smith said players should be able to use their platform as a member of the league to promote change.

"One of the greatest blessings about [being a player] hasn't been what it's been able to do for me financially, but what I've been able to help others, because I know what it's like," Smith said.

"It could stir things up, which is a problem. Because you're stirring things up because you're being told to be quiet, when it could have been done together to figure out what we can do to move forward and what would be best for the players."
Torrey Smith, on the NFL's new national anthem policy

Smith grew up with a mother who was a convicted felon before turning her life around, "so I saw firsthand how hard it was for her even though she continued to educate herself and change her life."

Smith noted that about 70 percent of the players in the NFL are African-American and that football is an ideal place to bring men and women of all races and ethnicities together.

"A lot of people look at athletes like they're pure activists," he said. "We're just trying to do our part, and we aren't gonna be able to it alone. Just like it's not the NFL's sole fight to change the world, but the NFL has an opportunity to have a big influence."

Smith added that "it's not an easy fix."

"It's going to be a long-term process, and we're just trying to do our part," he said. "That's essentially what the protests started with and we have to continue with. It's not so much about the protests, it's about the work going forward."

Smith wasn't in a meeting last week with soon-to-be Panthers owner David Tepper, who met with team captains to discuss, among other things, his thoughts on the anthem rule. But Smith talked to teammates who were in the meeting and came away with a positive feeling.

"I heard he was a great guy, very passionate about winning and the community," Smith said of Tepper, approved by NFL owners a week ago to purchase the team from Jerry Richardson for $2.275 billion. "Whenever you see or hear that, that's a positive sign."

Smith doesn't believe the new anthem rule will be positive. He's disappointed in those who suggest players should stay in their lane and focus on football and not issues in the world.

"If that's the case, I might as well leave my wife and two kids back at home and not worry about them," Smith said. "Football is what we do. It's not who we are. We're here, we're working. When we go home, we have regular lives like everyone else.

"Coming home, I have to hope my 4-year-old didn't pee all over the toilet. I have to hope my 2-year-old isn't breaking all the eggs up like he did this past weekend. We have problems just like everybody else. ... It's bigger than the game, and this is just what we're doing."

ESPN's Tim McManus and Jordan Raanan contributed to this report.