The New York Times obtained audio of a tense three-hour meeting between NFL players and owners in October that sheds new light on how the two sides sought to deal with the fallout from ongoing national anthem protests—including President Donald Trump’s relentless criticism of the league.
During the meeting, which included 30 owners, league executives, and players at the NFL headquarters, players wondered why free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick—who kicked off the anthem protests in 2016 and has gone unsigned since he opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers last March—was being blackballed. (Kaepernick is currently in the middle of a labor grievance against the league, alleging owners colluded to keep him out.) The Times reported that his former teammate Eric Reid told the group he felt Kaepernick “was hung out to dry.”
“Everyone in here is talking about how much they support us,” Reid told a silent room. “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.”
Owners were relatively quiet on the Kaepernick issue, but many—including those who had long supported Trump—had plenty to say about what the league should do to fix its image in the midst of the president’s assault on the NFL.
“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,” said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, whose Kraft Group contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee.
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, the rare Democratic donor among NFL owners, told the group, “We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else.” Some of Lurie’s players, including Malcom Jenkins and meeting attendee Chris Long, were among the most vocal athletes during the anthem protests, and it’s unclear whether the team, which went on to win this year’s Super Bowl, will visit the White House.
Houston Texans owner and GOP megadonor Bob McNair insisted that players stop kneeling altogether. “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,” McNair said. McNair, who contributed to Trump’s campaign and inaugural committee, ended up apologizing after the meeting when ESPN reported that he also told the group that owners “can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
Perhaps one of the strangest comments, though, came from Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula, who argued that the league needed to learn from the National Rifle Association and elevate a spokesman like Charlton Heston to combat its “media problem”—and that that spokesman needed to be black: “For us to have a face, as an African American, at least a face that could be in the media, we could fall in behind that.”