Did the NFL fumble a deal with players over anthem protests?

For almost two years, the NFL has gotten hammered by fans and politicians over player protests during the national anthem, and commissioner Roger Goodell has been looking for a way to get players to end them for most of this season. The stakes could not be higher; two weeks ago, Outkick the Coverage’s Clay Travis — a big critic of the protests — claimed that the league and its partners could lose $500 million this year alone from erosion in TV ratings, although Travis also points out that there’s more to the drop than just the protests. (Putting two teams in LA may be a large part of the problem, Travis suggests, a case of own-goaling by the owners.)

Still, the protests have generated the most organized threat to its popularity, and both Goodell and the owners are desperate for an escape hatch. The league finally cut a deal last night with representatives from several teams over their concerns about social justice issues, hoping to put an end to the public-relations nightmare. The league has committed to paying almost $90 million over the next seven years to support the players’ political and social agenda after a series of meetings with their representatives. In return, the league gets … nothing.

No, really:

NFL player representatives and league officials reached an agreement Wednesday night for the league to provide financial support to players’ community-activism endeavors, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.

The tentative agreement does not directly address the ongoing protests by players during the national anthem, multiple people familiar close to the situation said earlier in the evening.

Owners have been hopeful that an agreement with the players on activism would lead all players to voluntarily stand for the anthem. But divisions on the players’ side that became evident earlier Wednesday could lead to the protests continuing even with the deal in place.

So … the league will spend $90 million and just hope that all of the players stop. That’s a lot of cash out of the owners’ pockets for nothing at all in return — not even a collective-bargaining agreement concession. Speaking of which, the owners didn’t sit down with the NFL Players Association, which is the official representative of labor and authorized by the players to negotiate binding agreements on their behalf. They sat down with an ad-hoc committee of players with no such endorsement.

Yeah … that’ll work out well.

Or .. not, as the group has already fractured:

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid said Wednesday that Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins kicked Colin Kaepernick out of the Players Coalition, naming it as one of Reid’s reasons for splitting from the group. Jenkins said that’s not true, that he has kept Kaepernick in the loop and that the former quarterback preferred the relationship to be informal.

Reid and Dolphins safety Michael Thomas announced on social media earlier in the day that they were breaking from the coalition started by Jenkins and former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin. Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung also announced he was breaking from the coalition.

Besides the status of Kaepernick, who started the protests last year, the split follows a disagreement as to whether these talks ever involved an offer to end the protests:

Reid told ESPN that Jenkins had conversations with the NFL without him or Thomas being involved. Reid also said Jenkins told the NFL the players would end demonstrations if money was donated by the league to certain initiatives.

“That was never discussed at any point. I feel like I’ve been misled,” Reid said. “I won’t accuse Malcolm of directly lying to me, because I don’t think he’s that type of guy. But I will say he’s misled us. And shoot, if that’s what lying is, then that’s what it is.”

Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith don’t have a good relationship, but at least Smith had credibility as a bargaining partner. The terms of the negotiations would have been understood up front. Perhaps Smith didn’t want to be part of this issue — who could blame him? — but meeting with this group makes no sense at all.

What has the NFL managed to produce in this deal? Owners will spend $90 million to fund an effort by players to make the game more political. Weren’t they getting that for free with the current anthem protests? Don’t any of these owners know how to negotiate at all?

The Washington Post notes that the eventual solution will likely be a rule change in March that will revert back to the pre-2009 status quo which required teams to remain in the locker room during the anthem. That’s silly, but it’s probably the only way owners can put the issue behind them. Travis’ other points — scheduling, quality of play, and game selection in LA’s TV market — will ensure the league’s woes continue.

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