The jarring video from the Dolphins posted on Thursday night has become the latest example of a dynamic that will become only stronger as time goes by. NFL players have become more aware of their power than ever before when it comes to matters of social justice, and they are not afraid to use it.
As one head coach recently told PFT via text message, “[T]hese players want change and action and they want to be involved. I don’t think anyone wants to be on the wrong side of history. The players have a lot of power in this movement. They know that the games cannot be played without them.”
The next test comes when millions of fans who haven’t been paying attention to every twist and turn of NFL news witness for the first time the renewed anthem protests, the messages in the end zone, the names on the helmet bumpers, and react negatively to these gestures with insults and worse. The league needs to be ready to show the players that the league truly has their backs when the inevitable blowback comes.
The league can’t and won’t make everyone happy. It needs to be very concerned about making the players happy, because the players’ power includes boycotting games.
Technically, it would be an illegal wildcat strike. As a practical matter, the league would risk horrible P.R. and employee relations by taking the union to court to force players back to work and/or to recover compensation for money lost by scrapped games. Indeed, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent already has said that the players have the “right” to skip games over social justice matters.
And so the challenge for the league will be to convince teams like the Dolphins that it’s not just talk, and that the league and the owners are truly on board with them. There’s no middle ground, no fence to ride, no needle to thread. If the league isn’t with the players on this, the league necessarily is against them. Unlike ever before, the players realize that they do something about it far more tangible than protest during the anthem.