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Dolphins' hardline rule on protesting players stems from one place: President Trump

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

When the microscope of Colin Kaepernick’s collusion grievance against the NFL began focusing closely on President Donald Trump the past few months, one team owner continued to find his way to the forefront of conversations with those close to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. One billionaire who was becoming the glue binding together the assertion that NFL franchise owners were carrying a torch not just for their bottom lines when it came to players protesting in the league, but also for Trump, who was browbeating the NFL senseless.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who had private conversations with Trump and relayed the content of those talks to the NFL’s fraternity of billionaires. Nor was it New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who had famously shared a flight on Air Force One with the president and was squarely in his political corner. Or even the Houston Texans’ Bob McNair, who had donated a whopping $2 million to the pro-Trump group Great America, along with another $1 million directly to Trump’s inaugural committee.

Yes, these were pillars in the league’s collection of Trump supporters, along with a smattering of others who offered financial support to the president, including the New York Jets’ Woody Johnson, Washington Redskins’ Dan Snyder, Jacksonville Jaguars Shad Khan, Los Angeles Rams’ Stan Kroenke and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Edward Glazer. But someone always stood out above the rest. The one who made the mistake of admitting that his thought process on player protests during the national anthem was directly influenced by Trump’s never-ending jabs.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is singing a different tune on his team’s national anthem policy than what he expressed earlier this year. (AP)

It was the Miami Dolphins’ Stephen Ross.

The New York real estate developer who has known Trump for decades. The guy who founded RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality), a nonprofit with an aim of “harnessing the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.” The guy who supported player protests during the national anthem.

Until he didn’t.

And then did again.

But now doesn’t. Again.

In the land of wishy-washy, public relations-driven policy, Ross is sitting on the throne this week. The NFL itself isn’t far behind, as hours after the Dolphins’ policy became public in an Associated Press report, the league issued a joint statement with the players union that said, “No new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks” while the two sides work on a resolution in wake of the union’s grievance over the league’s policy.

Ross earned his crown when the Dolphins became the first known NFL team to formulate and distribute a hardened rule against protests during the anthem, drawing up internal literature that classifies “Proper Anthem Conduct” as an act that relates directly to “conduct detrimental to the club.” In layman’s terms, the Dolphins officially made “anthem conduct” into a vague, subjective and suspendable disciplinary point. To the tune of as many as four games.

Multiple teams in the league – or all of them – could have similar rules on the books by the start of preseason games. And there’s a possibility that others do now, thanks to a May vote at the league’s Atlanta meetings that made anthem-related “conduct” a punishable offense.

But as it relates to how Kaepernick’s grievance against the NFL has hardened around a Trump theme, his legal camp couldn’t have asked for a more obvious owner to make its point in the wake of anthem legislation. After all, it was Ross who spoke the words that everyone else assumed. On tape, no less.

Ross told the New York Daily News last March: “I think initially I totally supported the players in what they were doing, because it’s America – people should be able to really speak about their choices and show them [in] doing that. But I think when you change the message, about, is it support of our country or the military, it’s a different message. When that message changed, and everybody was interpreting it as that was the reason, then I was against the kneeling. … [Trump’s] message became what kneeling was all about. From that standpoint, that’s the way the public is interpreting it. So I think that’s really incumbent upon us to adopt that, because that’s how I think the country is now interpreting the kneeling issue.”

How that line of thinking fits into Ross’s non-profit and “harnessing the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress” seems foggy. As does most of Ross’s flip-flopping proclamations about the issue.

When his words to the Daily News hit the social media fan – spurring his inclusion as a deposition witness in the Kaepernick case – Ross tried his best to clean up the mess. With a statement that now looks like … well … at best, a contradiction. At worst, a lie.

“I have no intention of forcing our players to stand during the anthem, and I regret that my comments have been misconstrued,” Ross said of his Trump comments to the Daily News (which again, were on tape and hard to misconstrue). “I’ve shared my opinion with all our players: I’m passionate about the cause of social justice and I feel that kneeling is an ineffective tactic that alienates more people than it enlists. … I know our players care about the military and law enforcement too because I’ve seen the same players who are fighting for social justice engaging positively with law enforcement and the military. I care passionately that the message of social justice resonates far and wide, and I will continue to support and fund efforts for those who fight for equality for all.”

Of course, having “anthem conduct” on the books as something that can get a player suspended doesn’t necessarily mean the Dolphins will follow through. Or that they’ll deem kneeling or anything else “detrimental” to their team. But it begs the question: Why have it on the books in the first place, when at the very least it will come off as a veiled (or overt) threat?

Ultimately, the answer doesn’t matter. Ross jumped into the Trump/NFL/anthem controversy headfirst. And this latest revelation does nothing to reverse that. Ross’s support of his players exists until it doesn’t. His mind is made up until his president changes it. He’s a champion of driving social progress until he’s creating rules against it.

As a man of conviction, Stephen Ross remains fluid. But as an example of Trump’s influence over NFL owners – from words to actions – he’s as concrete as it gets.

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