-- This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 13 issue. Subscribe today!
NOBODY KNEW WHERE to sit. Side by side or across from one another?
It was the final question raised by a group of 11 NFL team owners as they mingled inside the sixth-floor conference room at the league's Park Avenue headquarters in New York City, minutes before they were to meet with a group of 12 players, one former player and three union leaders on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 17. The day already had been stressful, and the meeting hadn't even started. League executives had spent that morning as they had the previous four weeks: grappling with a series of events the league and owners could not control, unleashed by President Donald Trump's harsh criticism of the decision by a handful of players to kneel during the national anthem.
Morale was bad inside the league office, and the pressure was not letting up. There was the looming notion that sponsors would leave the NFL -- not just because of the protests but because of an array of challenges confronting the league, including the continuing decline in TV ratings. Nearly all of the league's longtime sponsors, from Papa John's to USAA, were rattled, and fissures within the league offices and teams, to say nothing of the players, were starting to expand.
Among many league and team executives, the games had become, improbably, an afterthought. These two days of New York meetings held the potential to provide a measure of hope -- a way for owners to formulate a plan with players that would satisfy disenchanted fans and advertisers. It was no secret that commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners wanted the players to stop kneeling during the anthem immediately. A week earlier, Goodell said that he hoped owners and players could "move past" the anthem issue at the meetings. If and how that could be accomplished was unclear. After Goodell's statement, Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys' owner, threatened to bench any player who knelt, the only owner to issue such an ultimatum, one that won praise in Texas and across much of America's heartland. Spurred on by Jones' stance, some hard-line owners looked at the meetings as the opportunity to vote on a mandate that would force all players to stand for the anthem.
For weeks, Goodell had tried to get in front of the issue. One owner had complained that NBA commissioner Adam Silver got away with ordering players to stand because, unlike Goodell, he has a good relationship with the union. Another owner had remarked to a colleague that Trump would like nothing more than for players to strike over the protests, maybe forcing a suspension of the season.
As owners filed into the large conference room featuring a massive, football-shaped table, everyone feared the discussion could get ugly. NFL executive Troy Vincent, who cared deeply about the players' concerns but had little patience for the protests, called San Francisco 49ers GM John Lynch the Saturday before the meeting. He told him that if safety Eric Reid, one of the most ardent protesters, knelt the next day, he shouldn't "bother to show up" at the players-owners meeting because nobody would take him seriously, according to people briefed on the call. Reid knelt anyway. And he intended to show up.
Just before Reid and the other players and union leadership arrived, talk among the owners turned to a final issue, small but symbolic: the seating arrangement. In collective bargaining negotiations, the owners sat opposite players and union representatives. But Goodell told the owners their job that morning was to listen; the session was not a negotiation or anything that could be resolved by a quid pro quo. The owners decided the meeting would have to start with the tiniest of gestures:
We'll sit side by side with the players.
THE NIGHT BEFORE that meeting, Jerry Jones stood in a suite at Yankee Stadium, watching the Yankees play the Houston Astros in the ALCS but also, perhaps, catching a terrifying glimpse into his future. The Cowboys are what the Yankees once were: America's most iconic team in America's most iconic -- and patriotic -- sport. Jones was a man at the pinnacle of his profession that chilly night, the Hall of Fame owner whose power among his peers is drawn from a relentless skill at growing the NFL's total revenues and the guile to outmuscle everyone. But those who have spoken with him sense a dull panic, as if so much of what the NFL has built -- what he has built since buying the Cowboys in 1989 -- is eroding. Jones and his fellow owners had arrived in New York that day like heads of state, setting up shop at the Four Seasons and in their own apartments with a clear agenda: Stop Trump from attacking our business. Find a way to persuade players to stop kneeling. Get the focus back to football.
But the owners had far different ideas about how to accomplish such difficult goals, according to nearly two dozen interviews Outside the Lines conducted with owners, league and team executives, players and lawyers briefed on the two days of closed-door meetings. For one thing, this was not the usual scandal or crisis the league could fight in the court system or the court of public opinion and then march away from. The game itself had come under a monthlong attack by the president of the United States, with no letting up. It was also a prickly regional problem. The players' protests and the president's criticism played far differently in New England and California than they did in Texas, where Jones and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair were fielding an avalanche of complaints from outraged fans. This time, Goodell didn't have to simply manage owners' bruised egos and simmering feuds; this was a national political crisis threatening the league's business and its brand, seen through a different lens by each owner depending on his or her own political leanings and each team's fan base. It would require leadership, diplomacy and, most likely, a little luck.
Yet in many ways, the meetings would be a referendum on the same argument owners have been holding in private meetings for years: What is the NFL's identity? Is it a strict entertainment company that Jones and others envision, controlling the behavior of its players in service of its financial bottom line? Or should it attempt to transform itself into a more socially conscious league that would strive, through the forging of a rare and fragile owners-players partnership in this moment, to use its mammoth platform to try to change society for the good, even if the cost of that process, slow and complicated, would likely be measured in short-term declining popularity and lower revenues?
Some owners left the Yankees game early, seeking a good night's sleep before the meeting with the players the next morning. Jones could afford to stay out late. Goodell had personally decided which owners would attend, and he had not invited Jones. The commissioner, sources say, wanted to prevent the players-owners meeting from devolving into an argument about whether a player should be benched if he kneels -- an argument that was more likely to break out if Jones attended. For his part, Jones, who declined comment for this story, didn't seem bothered. He beamed in the Yankee Stadium suite alongside his oldest son, Stephen, masking worries over what was now at stake for the NFL in 2017.
Polls show that the protest issue has resonated with millions of fans who insist all players should stand for the national anthem; some are calling for an NFL boycott and vowing to never watch another NFL game. Owners are alarmed at how rapidly fans' outrage is eroding many of the league's key business metrics, and executives at some broadcast partners have complained to owners about how the NFL lurches from crisis to crisis. A recent Morning Consult poll revealed that the NFL's net favorability has dropped to 11 percent from a high of 56 percent in May. Jones was furious that local TV ratings in Dallas were down, especially a 19 percent drop for this year's game against Green Bay, compared with last year's. "There is no question the league is suffering negative effects from these protests," he would tell reporters after the Cowboys routed the 49ers. "All times, I want to do the right thing by [NFL sponsors] and their customers. I have a great responsibility to the people who support us. ... We all get great benefits from having a lot of us watching our games. All of us do."
Jones arrived in New York to have a good time -- and to deliver a reckoning. The only question was whether his billionaire partners and Goodell would heed that reckoning.
AS THE HISTORIC players-owners meeting began, the players, led by retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, entered the conference room and shook the owners' hands, an uncommon occurrence at prior tension-filled joint meetings. The players took seats side by side with the owners. Goodell wanted to put the players at ease by allowing every one of their voices to be heard. The players said that they felt the owners -- as a collective more than the small group in the room -- were being duplicitous; they were empathetic to their concerns behind closed doors but not publicly. Fans needed to hear from owners that players who knelt or raised fists were good men who loved their country, they argued. Messages of support couldn't be delivered only inside the locker rooms. Finally, New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis stood up in the center of the room and told owners: "I'm going to break it down for you guys. You guys aren't supporting us, and until you do, there's going to be an issue."
Davis' message, and passion, seemed to relieve the tension. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank later told Davis that he'd "missed his calling" as a great public speaker. A few owners tried to separate their deep dislike of unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the protests a little more than a year ago, from the players' broader message: This wasn't an "anthem protest" but rather an "inequality in America" protest. Knowing that their motives and message had largely been lost in the political chaos, the players told stories of their personal connections to the military and showed a good grasp of the business problems suddenly confronting the league. Left unsaid was the warning issued on Oct. 11 by Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy about forcing players to stand: "I think it's gonna be an uproar if that is to happen, because you're basically taking away a constitutional right to freedom of speech."
League executives tried to show they understood the players' concerns. Several league staff members presented a three-pronged action plan: expand the My Cause, My Cleats initiative; help convene more meetings with lawmakers to ramp up lobbying for players' causes on Capitol Hill and, through the clubs, in statehouses across the country; and use the NFL's platform to promote it all. The league had scrapped a staff idea to extend an olive branch to Kaepernick -- who in October filed a collusion claim against the owners -- by inviting him to visit the league headquarters.
The action plan had met harsh criticism when it was first introduced inside the league office the Thursday before the owners' meetings. Anna Isaacson, the NFL's vice president of social responsibility, chief marketing officer Dawn Hudson and others had presented the plan to Goodell and top executives, including public relations chief Joe Lockhart, chief operating officer Tod Leiweke, chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp and general counsel Jeff Pash. Isaacson characterized the plan as a chance to seize the social moment and make an impact beyond football. There was also a request for a huge marketing budget. The league's business executives ripped it, accusing Isaacson -- who had joined the NFL after working in merchandising and community relations for baseball's Brooklyn Cyclones -- and Hudson of losing sight of the goal, which was to persuade all the players to stand for the anthem. The plan was "too political," they said, and would likely invite further attacks by Trump. "How could you possibly present this to owners?" one executive asked. As the proposal was discussed, Goodell remained mostly quiet but seethed because he felt the plan was uninspired.
Neither Goodell nor the business executives liked the action plan at that moment, but what worried the business executives was that Goodell was not focused on what they deemed the priority: the very real financial problems facing the NFL. Fact was, they were right. Goodell believed that all players should stand, but he and Vincent had been working with them for more than a year on their concerns, calling them individually and holding meetings, and the commissioner deeply cared about their cause.
Now, in the meeting with players, Goodell, despite his initial reservations about Isaacson's plan, supported it "full bore," an owner says. Not only that, the commissioner moved around the room to guide the conversation about its pluses. Many times he told the owners they weren't hearing the players' core arguments. "We're all in this together," Goodell told them. The players and the union executives, who have been at odds with Goodell for years, were impressed. "It was the proudest I've ever been in the NFL," one owner said later. This was Goodell leading in a manner they'd rarely seen: He was not playing a zero-sum game, he was not risk-averse and his compassion clearly lay with the players in the face of severe pressure from hard-line owners and business executives. "He did a great job because he didn't say much," Blank says. "I don't mean that in a negative way."
The players had arrived at NFL headquarters wanting to be their own voice rather than have the union speak for them. DeMaurice Smith, the players' association chief, was uncharacteristically quiet during the session, having found a way to move forward on this issue with Goodell after a private meeting at Dulles International Airport on Oct. 3. In a similar sort of way, the players concluded that Goodell seemed to be speaking for himself more than for many owners and even the league -- something that stunned them because, after all, some players privately view the commissioner as the puppet of ruthless billionaire owners. "There was sincerity on both sides," 49ers CEO Jed York says.
The meeting was going so well that even the unintentionally awkward moments were forgiven. At one point, Buffalo Bills co-owner Terry Pegula, moved by Anquan Boldin's story about his cousin being shot and killed by a police officer, complimented him on how impressive he was but kept calling him "Antwan." Then Pegula suggested that Boldin would be the perfect NFL spokesman on social issues not only because he had walked away from the game to pursue causes but because, the owner said, it couldn't be a "white owner but needs to be someone who's black."
Some people quickly glanced at one another; others looked down, cringing. But the discussion resumed, and soon the session was running so long -- by 90 minutes -- that nobody knew how to end it. At one point, Robert Kraft mumbled to the two Jets players seated on either side of him, "Can we just shut the f--- up and end this?" Everyone on that side of the table laughed, and the optics of the Patriots owner laughing with two players from his team's rival seemed to have accomplished the mission.
But it was hard to tell if it was just optics. Shortly after 1 p.m., Goodell and Smith stepped out of the session to tell Lockhart and union spokesman George Atallah to craft a joint NFL-NFLPA statement, a symbol of rare cooperation.
Players were still skeptical that the owners and league executives beyond Goodell were motivated to act -- a week later, Chargers tackle Russell Okung would label the league's lack of urgency "disappointing" and said the players-owners meeting appeared "unproductive at best and disingenuous at worst."
Before everyone left the room that afternoon, Davis made one last point: how important it had been that acting Jets owner Chris Johnson, the brother of Woody Johnson, now Trump's ambassador to the United Kingdom, had visited with every player in the locker room to hear their concerns.
"Guys will stand up if you hear them," Davis told the owners.
TWO HOURS LATER, those 11 owners joined their counterparts and league executives in a third-floor conference room at the Conrad Hotel in lower Manhattan. It was uncertain and tense. Most pro-stand owners, like Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins, had been purposefully excluded from the players' meeting.
Inside the conference room, Goodell kicked off the session by asking each of the 11 owners to give his account of the players' meeting. Nearly all offered slight variations on the same theme: It was a very good session; the players were passionate and very impressive; we've got a lot of work to do to address their concerns and to use the NFL platform to address these difficult social, racial and justice issues. The mandate to stand wasn't mentioned. Goodell didn't interrupt anyone, and he summed it up by saying that the two sides were "on a good path to a partnership."
Goodell then opened the floor to discussion, and something surprising happened: Nobody debated. Jones asked a pair of benign questions about the process for Isaacson's proposal, a far different occurrence than in the committee meetings three weeks earlier when, according to an owner, he had "hijacked" the protest discussion. Owners were stunned. "OK," Goodell said, "let's move on and we'll come back to this." The meeting broke around 5 p.m., and many of the owners left for the night believing that the ones who hated the protests most had relented. But Goodell had purposefully tabled the discussion out of deference to Jones, giving him the evening to speak to owners and gauge the support for a league-wide mandate to stand.
AT THE CONRAD on Wednesday, Day 2 of the meetings began with most owners and team executives back inside the third-floor conference room. While league staffers reviewed mundane legal matters and pored over a PowerPoint presentation showcasing this season's declining TV ratings, a strange suspense lingered over the session, given that the anthem issue remained unresolved: What would Jerry Jones say?
By late morning, Goodell finally moved the discussion to the protests. It was a "special privileged session," with only owners plus one adviser allowed. Snyder spoke first. He said that there were real business issues at stake, and he mentioned that in his market, the defense industry and other sponsors were angry about the protests. He didn't put any dollars on it. To many in the room, Snyder's speech felt like an opening act for the headlining band.
After Snyder sat down, Jones stood and left no question that it was his floor. "I'm the ranking owner here," he said.
At first, some in the room admired Jones' pure bravado, the mix of folksy politician and visionary salesman he has perfected. But he was angry. He said the owners had to take the business impact seriously, as the league was threatened by a polarizing issue it couldn't contain or control. To some in the room, it was clear Jones was trying to build momentum for an anthem mandate resolution, and in the words of one owner, "he brought up a lot of fair points." Jones believed he was one of the few showing any urgency on the matter and seemed to be more frustrated that not everybody was listening than he was passionate about the mandate.
As Jones spoke, Snyder mumbled out loud, "See, Jones gets it -- 96 percent of Americans are for guys standing," a claim some dismissed as a grand overstatement. McNair, a multimillion-dollar Trump campaign contributor, spoke next, echoing many of the same business concerns. "We can't have the inmates running the prison," McNair said.
That statement stunned some in the room. Then Kraft, who is close friends with Trump, politely rebuked the hardliners, saying that he supported the league's marketing proposal and predicted the issue would work itself out over time. This argument seemed to find a receptive audience in the room. An unofficial count had only nine owners in favor of a mandate, though the reasons for the opposition varied: Some owners had tired of Jones always commandeering such meetings; some were jealous of his power and eager to see him go down; some saw the players-must-stand mandate as bad policy to invoke in the middle of the season; some owners were angry with Jones' hard-line public stance on kneeling, feeling that it had backed them all into a corner. "The majority of owners understand this is important to the players and want to be supportive, even if they don't exactly know how to be supportive," one owner says.
Now, suddenly, Jones found himself in an unfamiliar position: He wasn't getting his way. He knew it, and everyone knew it. Like the numerous reasons behind the protests, the business concerns were nuanced -- one major sponsor had threatened to pull out if the NFL were to issue a mandate to stand. York spoke next. Though Jones and Snyder were angry with him -- they felt that if he had forced Kaepernick to stand a year ago, this crisis could have been averted -- York and Jeffrey Lurie of the Eagles had emerged as thoughtful leaders. Knowing that many of the players who were still kneeling were on his 49ers, York emphasized that he understood the business concerns and that each market was different, and that he had been talking to his players for a long time and would continue to do so. Lurie had spoken up during the meeting, supporting the players' right to kneel.
After the owners finished, Troy Vincent stood up. He was offended by McNair's characterization of the players as "inmates." Vincent said that in all his years of playing in the NFL -- during which, he said, he had been called every name in the book, including the N-word -- he never felt like an "inmate."
It was starting to get nasty. Vincent and Jones had a sharp but quick back-and-forth, with Jones finally reminding the room that rather than league office vice presidents, it was he and fellow owners who had helped build the NFL's $15 billion-a-year business, and they would ultimately decide what to do. McNair later pulled Vincent aside and apologized, saying that he felt horrible and that his words weren't meant to be taken literally, which Vincent appreciated. The meetings were already running long and were ending on a raw note -- and there were more agenda items to hit. For the second time in a month, a few frustrated owners grumbled about Lockhart, angry that the league was, as usual, appearing to be reactive in a public relations sense in the face of a crippling crisis. League executives worried that during upcoming events -- Veterans Day and the NFL's Salute to Service -- pro-military groups might stage protests.
Goodell left the meeting room to be ushered to a news conference. The final topic of a long morning was the most salient one: the commissioner's next contract. Jones is not technically on the six-person committee that determines Goodell's compensation, but he has willed himself onto it. And so, before everyone could leave, he spoke for 20 minutes, delving into all of the league's problems that everyone knew by heart. He wanted Goodell's contract to be more incentive-based than it is. "This is the most one-sided contract ever," he said. This speech, like the one earlier in the day by him, was not vintage Jones: His usual annoying but endearing Jerryisms were replaced by a palpable urgency; it seemed to a few owners as if only Jones could see that an opportunity to regain control of the league was slipping away.
As Jones spoke, a few owners wondered what exactly had been accomplished during the week in New York. Had Goodell won? Had the players won? Had Jones lost? For most, it was enough that the owners and players had come together and that perhaps the promise of their newly formed partnership would bury the desire of some players to take a knee or raise their fists again. As a top league executive remarked when it was over, it took a president's attacks to get everyone to come together -- or at least agree to keep talking, as they intend to do at the next owners-players summit, scheduled for Oct. 31, a meeting that the players have invited Kaepernick to attend.
Just after 2 p.m., the New York meetings adjourned, two hours late. Owners filed out to meet in the lobby with reporters, explaining the league's baby steps toward turning "protest into progress." All of the reporters waited for Jones. A day earlier, he had tried to duck underneath a staircase at the hotel to avoid them, but about two-dozen reporters swarmed, ready to assume their common position of being his rapt audience. But Jones didn't stop walking. He searched for a way out of the hotel and hit a dead end before turning back and going down an escalator. Jones likes to talk the most when he's selling. For now, at least, he had nothing to sell. But there was a very real sense that he wasn't done fighting, not on the anthem, not on Goodell's contract and not on his worries about the NFL's future. As he left the meeting room, Jerry Jones was silent. And then he was gone, slipping out a hotel side door and out of New York, where so much had been discussed and so little had been decided.