NEW YORK – Will it be a last stand for standing? Will kneeling start to come at a price?
Those and other questions about how NFL clubs and their players deal with the national anthem will be addressed when team owners and executives gather Tuesday and Wednesday at a midtown hotel for their annual fall meeting.
An NFL spokesman has been careful not to speculate about whether the session will result in a mandate that all players stand, but where the discussions end up is anyone's guess.
Tuesday morning, 11 NFL owners – including Terry Pegula of the Buffalo Bills – were part of a meeting at league headquarters in Manhattan with Commissioner Roger Goodell and league executive vice president Troy Vincent, a dozen active players, former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, and two other NFLPA officials.
The NFL, which had made clear its preference at all players stand, wants to try to get all parties on the same page.
"I fully expect this to be front and center on the agenda," NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said during a recent national media conference call.
At the center of the conversation is the league's game operational manual, a 260-page document that covers everything from what players must wear and how they must wear it. It currently states that players "should" stand for the anthem. Some have chosen to kneel, citing it as their way of calling attention to social issues.
No players have been disciplined for kneeling, although there has been speculation that owners want to change the language of the manual so that there would be punishment, perhaps in the form of a fine. Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, for one, sparked controversy for threatening players with consequences if they did not stand for the anthem.
Having felt a backlash from fans and sponsors that think kneeling disrespects the American flag and military, Goodell and owners are looking for a way for players to go about advancing their cause without involving the anthem.
No Bills players were kneeling before the team's last game, an Oct. 8 loss at Cincinnati. On Tuesday, members of the team launched several community outreach initiatives in Western New York. The Bills did not have a player representative of the Tuesday meeting at NFL headquarters.
Besides Pegula, other owners attending the session at league headquarters were Michael Bidwill of the Arizona Cardinals, Arthur Blank of the Atlanta Falcons, Robert McNair of the Houston Texans, Shad Kahn of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, John Mara of the New York Giants, Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jeffrey Laurie of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Jed York of the San Francisco 49ers.
"(The owners) will have a chance, all of them, to discuss this issue, to look at the policy, look at ideas if there's a need to change the policies," Lockhart said. "I think everyone at this point is frustrated by this situation. I think the commissioner and the owners do want the players to stand ... because we think (the anthem is) an important part of the game.
"I think the players are frustrated because the issues that they're trying to raise awareness about and try to enact progress have been distorted in a game of political football, and I think each and every one of them has made clear that they are patriotic, they do have respect for the flag. But they have important issues here and they're trying to raise them. And I think our fans are frustrated. Football is traditionally a unifying event, an escape from the divisive politics we face in this country right now.
"I think there's a strong feeling across the league, at every level, that we ought to get back to football."