- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2018

NFL team owners have unanimously given their final approval to an unprecedented $90 million social justice initiative but have made no decisions about how to handle players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.

Instead, owners are expected to continue the discussion about whether to change the game-day policy, which does not require players to stand, at the spring league meeting in May, according to a post on NFL.com citing the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

“The NFL is committing $90 million to a new social justice initiative that supports efforts and programs to combat social inequality,” the NFL post said Monday. “In a memo sent to all 32 teams in early December, the league said it plans to work closely with players, teams and other groups in the new and expanded community improvement program.”

In addition, the NFL Foundation “contributed $3 million in initial funding for the program,” the statement said.

The decision to avoid an anthem vote at the March 25-28 annual league meeting in Orlando came with the owners split on how to handle the divisive two-year-old sideline protests, which have been blamed in large part for the NFL’s 9.7 percent ratings decline in the 2017 regular season.

New York Jets CEO Christopher Johnson told reporters Sunday that “I just think that trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea,” while Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said the field is “not the place for political statements.”

“We’re going to deal with it in such a way that people will understand we want everybody to respect our country, respect our flag,” Mr. McNair said on ESPN. “Our playing field, that’s not the place for political statements. That’s not the place for religious statements. It’s the place for football. That’s what we need to be doing.”

The 32 owners, who had already agreed to spend $73 million over seven years on social-justice causes at the national level, said Monday they would provide team matching funds for local causes as part of the agreement reached in November with the Players Coalition.

Under the deal, owners would pony up $250,000 and players would match that amount annually for a total of $500,000 per team for social-justice efforts in their communities, according to ESPN.

The $73 million for national causes would be divided between three organizations: 25 percent for the United Negro College Fund; 25 percent to Dream Corps, and 50 percent to the Players Coalition, led by Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, which has filed for nonprofit status.

Critics have described the deal as a payoff for progressives, pointing out that the Dream Corps was founded by former Obama administration adviser Van Jones and promotes a number of left-wing causes.

“The NFL’s brand has suffered because it has given left-wing agitators a platform and the millions deciding not to watch the games is evidence that the fans are tired of the politicization of football,” said Robert Kuykendall, spokesman for 2ndVote, a conservative corporate watchdog.

“By formally caving, the NFL will confirm it has no qualms against using the dollars fans spend on tickets and merchandise to fund the left’s agenda and further alienate viewers who just want to see agenda-free football,” he said in a statement.

Still, the deal may have produced the desired result: Last week, free-agent safety Eric Reid said he would no longer kneel during the national anthem, as he has done for two years, telling reporters it was time to channel his efforts in other ways.

Reid, who has not been signed by a team since free agency began March 14, had been viewed as a protest leader since the departure of his former San Francisco 49ers teammate Colin Kaepernick, who is also unsigned and has not played since 2016.

Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to wrap up the results of the Orlando meeting at a Wednesday press conference.

The protests began in the 2016 regular season but spiked in late September after President Trump suggested that owners should fire players who refuse to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

About 20 players, most of them San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, were still sitting or kneeling in Week 17 for the last game of the 2017 regular season, despite fan outrage and slumping television ratings.

No players protested by refusing to stand for the national anthem during this year’s playoffs.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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