Grievance signals NFLPA's intent to fight NFL for long haul on anthem policy

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

From the moment the NFL announced its new national anthem policy at the league’s owners meetings in late May, players began stewing privately about the ongoing efforts to stifle their desire to bring awareness to the causes of social injustice and police brutality.

The NFL Players Association has, in turn, carried the mantle for the cause, and on Tuesday, it released a statement signaling its decision to challenge the policy by filing a non-injury grievance with the league that cited the NFL’s refusal to consult it on the policy. The union also asserts that the policy infringes on player rights and is inconsistent with the current collective-bargaining agreement.

The NFL has 10 days to respond to the grievance in writing. Here’s a quick rundown of what the grievance means on the anthem issue in the short and long terms.

Some New England Patriots kneeled during the playing of the national anthem last season. (Getty Images)

Why are NFL players mad at the new policy?

While the NBA mandates that all players should stand for the anthem, that league managed to do so by actually sitting down with its players and collectively bargaining it. There’s a belief among pro football players and the NFLPA that the NFL, on the other hand, did not show them the same respect when instituting its own anthem policy a little over a month ago.

And while it’s true that some team owners met with members of the Players Coalition to discuss the reason for the protests during the lead-up to the owners meeting in late May, there’s also a belief in the NFLPA that several crucial aspects of the new policy weren’t discussed with those players during those talks.

Add that to the fact the NFLPA itself wasn’t looped in on the league’s anthem plans either, and it’s not difficult to understand why frustration exists for players, who think the league has broken their trust by force-feeding a policy they believe attacks their freedom of expression regarding a cause — social justice and police brutality — that many players feel strongly about.

Why did it take so long for NFLPA to file a grievance?

By the end of the 2017 season, only a handful of players were still protesting during the anthem. And with Colin Kaepernick’s decision to step away from the Players Coalition and Eric Reid’s decision to file a collusion suit against the NFL, there was a chance that would have remained the case in 2018, potentially allowing the issue to drift away. At the outset of the week of the league meetings in late May, few were predicting a resolution to the anthem protests that week, thinking it would lead to an unnecessary revival of a hot-button issue.

But when news dropped on Day 2 of the meetings that a policy would indeed be formed — a clear capitulation to President Donald Trump, who continues to embrace every opportunity to rally his base by ripping the patriotism of the league’s protesters — it stands to reason the NFLPA needed time to formulate a game plan beyond the boilerplate statement it released shortly after the league first announced the policy.

Did Tuesday’s statement having anything to do with Michael Bidwill’s support of Brett Kavanaugh?

Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill caused a stir by throwing his support behind Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on the Cardinals’ official website on Monday night, a move many have deemed hypocritical since the anthem policy makes it clear the NFL frowns on players making perceived “political” stances via league avenues. That has led some to ponder whether the NFLPA’s statement is, at least somewhat, a timely attempt to piggyback off that.

It’s highly unlikely the NFLPA was surprised or influenced by Bidwill’s willingness to stand behind Kavanaugh, since Bidwill has long been a prominent Republican donor, and the players association is well-informed about each owner’s political leanings.

What comes next in the process?

 The NFLPA has spent the past several weeks preparing its response as it begins to dig in for a longer battle with the NFL over the particulars of the anthem policy.

Members of the NFL’s executive committee have agreed to meet with NFLPA leadership to discuss the gulf that exists between the two sides on this policy, talks that will come over the coming weeks.

For starters, expect the NFLPA to ask for clarification about what defines a protest, since the NFL’s new policy is purposely ambiguous about that, essentially allowing each team to define what players can and cannot do during the anthem and subject them to discretionary discipline.

From there, it’s within the realm of possibility for the NFLPA to make requests about the ways players can protest in an attempt to reach an agreement that would allow both sides to avoid litigation and proceed forward with the new policy.

What if nothing comes of it?

If these discussions don’t yield fruit — which is likely, considering the NFL’s general refusal to collaborate over the years — the NFLPA is making preparations to execute a lawsuit against the league.

The issue would then potentially take months to play out in court, but the organization has already hired a Supreme Court litigator to serve as a spokesman on the issue, and would likely do so with the knowledge it would demonstrate to frustrated players that it is serious about supporting them in their fight against the league on a hot-button topic that no longer figures to go away anytime soon

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