Faced with the prospect of another wave of sideline demonstrations at N.F.L. games this weekend, the league’s owners and players are wrestling with how to plot a path forward from one of the most divisive weekends it has seen.
As they do so, they are weighing the players’ desire to rebuff criticism from President Trump and to kneel or lock arms during the national anthem to raise awareness of social injustice, while accommodating fans who would prefer football to just be about football.
Even as the president continues to fire almost daily barbs, league officials and a group of players met this week to discuss how to proceed. At least one team, the Denver Broncos, announced its players would stand during the anthem while several players on other teams expressed the desire to kneel or said they were discussing what to do. On Thursday night, players from the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears locked arms on their respective sidelines during the national anthem before their game in Green Bay, and asked fans to do the same.
The meeting this week at league headquarters included Commissioner Roger Goodell, several prominent owners and about a half-dozen players. No concrete measures came from the meeting, and the league did not explicitly try to put a stop to the protests, even though one player who attended said he felt it was the owners’ desire that all players stand for the anthem.
The issue has pushed the N.F.L. into an unusual dilemma of balancing respect for the wishes of its players, who often are critical of the owners on issues of health and labor agreements, while taking into account some signs of a backlash among many fans.
It is clear from interviews with N.F.L. officials and more than a dozen teams that owners and team executives would prefer that the protests end, both for personal reasons and because it risks inflaming the president, who has been a friend and ally of many of the owners, and alienating fans and sponsors. But they are also wary of appearing heavy handed and upsetting the image of unity that the league sought to project last weekend.
What has emerged in meetings across the league this week — from locker rooms to N.F.L. headquarters — is a strategy of not pushing back at an unpredictable president. Instead, the players, with input from team officials, are seeking to shape a message that shows their desire to stand together while still addressing the original intent of the protests: raising awareness of police brutality against African Americans and racism in general.
“The players have a right to speak their minds, but on the other hand, it can make it difficult because there isn’t anyone in America who doesn’t want to honor America,” Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, said in an interview. “You talk to other owners and the commissioner, they feel the same way, they support the players.”
But in a league with 32 teams, 2,000 players and a wide range of political views in the locker room and owners’ suites, finding consensus has been difficult as myriad conversations have taken place throughout the league.
In Charlotte, several players visited the house of Jerry Richardson, the team owner, to express their frustration with what they perceived to be restrictions on their ability to speak on social issues. In Kansas City, Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley said that teammates respectfully told him they disagreed with his decision to kneel during the anthem last Sunday. The Steelers are still dealing with the fallout from…