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Inside the NFL: League’s $89 million social justice commitment with Players Coalition draws questions

The NFL decided to throw money at a problem in hopes of making it go away.

Sort of.

A group of NFL players, and a former player, accepted what amounts to a charitable quid pro quo to end protests during the national anthem.

Sort of.

It all adds up to a complex and somewhat murky situation that’s likely to continue to play out in the coming months … if not longer.

Eliminating player protests remains among the league's highest priorities. Fewer have happened since earlier in the season (the Buffalo Bills have had none), but the NFL — and many of its sponsors and fans — won't be satisfied until everyone on the sidelines is standing at attention when the Star-Spangled Banner is performed.

Thus, the motivation for the NFL reaching a deal last Wednesday with the Players Coalition, a group of roughly 40 players in the league, plus retired receiver Anquan Boldin, who have had an ongoing dialogue with the NFL about the social issues the protesting raised. The league plans to earmark at least $89 million for a variety of causes deemed important to African-American communities.

There have been conflicting media reports about whether the agreement in principle between the NFL and the Players Coalition included a clause requiring all players to stop the protests. ESPN said there was no such stipulation and that the eight-year-old league policy that requires players to be on the sidelines during the anthem but does not say they must stand remains in place.

But Slate has a different account that it attaches to San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, who was one of two players to publicly pull out of the Coalition just before word of the deal became public. The other was Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas.

Slate, citing a source close to Reid, reported that the safety “received a message. The comment was: Would you be willing to end the protests if they made a donation?” Who delivered the message? Speculation is it came from Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, a leader of the Players Coalition along with Boldin.

That was at least implied in identical statements Reid and Thomas issued via Twitter: “The Players Coalition was supposed to be formed as a group that represents NFL Athletes who have been silently protesting social injustices and racism. However, Malcolm and Anquan can no longer speak on our behalf as we don’t believe the coalition’s beliefs are in our best interests as a whole. We will continue to have dialogue with the league to find equitable solutions but without Malcolm and Anquan as our representatives.”

Thurman Thomas on NFL protests: 'It's not about the anthem'

Reid and Thomas apparently aren't alone in their concerns over the Coalition's agreement with the NFL. A league source told me that players from other teams have left the Coalition because "of who has say-so over what's being negotiated. Within that group, there's not a democratic concept set up. There's like one or two guys doing everything and everybody else is kind of in the dark about it."

The Coalition is apparently unfazed by the criticism within its ranks.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” Boldin told the New York Daily News. “People that think that all players would be on the same page when it comes to this would be naïve. I think we all have the same goal in mind. I just think that there’s a different thought of how we get there. There’s definitely no hard feelings between us and other players, who don’t agree with us.”

The NFL-Players Coalition deal, which still needs formal approval from owners and whatever is left of the Coalition, calls for the $89 million to be spent over seven years. That comes to about $400,000 per club per year, and involves each owner donating $250,000 annually with matching contributions from players.

As outlined in the Slate piece, Reid believes that rather than investing new money into the agreement, the NFL would simply shift funding that had been allocated for other charities or pay for public-service announcements that would effectively allow the league to tout its community involvement. Slate notes that the league has taken similar approaches to domestic violence, breast cancer, and CTE research.

A memo that NFL COO Tod Leiweke sent to all 32 teams Friday explained that an initial $3 million would come from the NFL Foundation and that future monies will come from “cause-related events & consumer products sales, auctions and other promotional sources.” It pointed out that other social programs would not suffer at the expense of the latest one. “This new program will supplement, and not replace, our other key social responsibility efforts, including Salute to Service, cancer awareness, domestic violence/sexual assault and youth programs,” Leiweke wrote.

Bills players plan outreach Tuesday to keep up momentum from anthem protests

Another issue raised by Slate was the NFL essentially holding a decisive advantage over deciding how the $89 million is distributed because, per the agreement with the Coalition, a group consisting of five players, five owners and two league staff members would oversee disbursement.

The Bills are not represented on the Players Coalition. By all accounts, the topic of protesting hasn't been widely discussed among players on the team since the early part of the season. The last time the Bills protested in earnest was their group demonstration — with players and coaches locking arms and walking several yards onto the field — before the Sept. 24 victory against the Denver Broncos. That was the same weekend players throughout the NFL protested in various forms in reaction to President Trump's criticism of player protests during the anthem days earlier.

Since then, all of Buffalo's players have stood for the anthem.

"I don't think that we ever came to an agreement that nobody couldn't kneel," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, one of the Bills' veteran leaders, said. "I think we just moved passed that and wanted to be more proactive because, obviously, the issue itself, no matter how you feel about it, is divisive and breaks communities apart because nobody wants to listen once you start (protesting).

"I think our ownership and the players and our community relations department just have done a great job of just getting together and trying to be proactive in the community, doing more things that are centered around some of the guys' passions and interests."

In separate sessions, a group of about a dozen Bills players also has met with Erie County District Attorney John Flynn and Orchard Park Police Chief Mark Pacholec to, according to Alexander, discuss "how we, as Buffalo Bills players, can use our platform to at least help make change locally or in their own communities." Follow-up meetings are planned with both.

The NFL devoted most of last October's owners' meeting to finding a way to discourage and ultimately stop players from protesting during the national anthem. A select group of owners, including the Bills' Terry Pegula, met with Players Coalition members. That helped set the groundwork for the deal that was struck.

However, any hopes the league has of getting all players to stop protesting during the anthem seem unlikely. And there's always the possibility that they will be on the receiving end of more criticism from President Trump, sparking more protests.

Quick reads

*Skeptics could say the NFL is using it as a distraction for all of the negative attention drawn by falling television ratings and empty stadium seats, but on Friday the league unveiled its NFL Experience in Times Square. The NFL partnered with Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group to form an exhibit that spans 40,000 square feet and has four floors, and is being touted as "the most interactive and extensive football experience in the world."

It takes visitors from the practice field to the Super Bowl, allowing them to test their football skills, get virtual game strategy instruction from former NFL coach Jon Gruden (he'll explain the meaning of "Dice Right 61 Bull's-eye X Individual"), and take a roller-coaster-ride-like tour of the game-day experience in a 180-seat, 4D movie theater.

Current and former players, including Hall of Famers, will appear at the exhibit throughout the year. Tickets begin at $39 and can be purchased at the site or at NFLExperience.com.

*At long last, Josh Gordon returns to the field. After being banned the past two seasons for multiple violations of the NFL's substance-abuse policy, the highly talented wide receiver will play his first regular-season game since Dec. 21, 2014, when the Cleveland Browns face the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday at StubHub Center.

The story is being celebrated as a classic tale of perseverance and hope, of defying the odds and an example of the strength of the human spirit. However, at least one of Gordon's veteran teammates sees it as merely the beginning of a journey and that there are many miles to go.

“You take that player that has this big history of addiction and you put him in a locker room with a bunch of 20-year-olds and early 30-year-olds, let’s be honest, pro football players like to party, they like to go out and drink and that’s powerful, and it’s difficult and it’s going to take a lot of self-control and discipline on Josh’s part to not slide back into that lifestyle,” Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Thomas said during a radio appearance on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland.

“Because he can’t and not only from his own personal health, but from the NFL. I mean, they’re going to be testing him every single week for everything and one more slip-up and it might be over, so it’s going to be tough for him because he wants to be able to relate to those players, he wants to sit there and hang out with his friends and become one of the teammates, become one of the guys but he’s got to be careful not to ever cross that line, because he’s not the type of person that can handle one drink.”

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