Did NFL owners just admit to colluding with Trump to punish kneeling players?

Deposition transcripts show how NFL owners crumbled to Trump's will over protesting black players

Published May 30, 2018 5:45PM (EDT)

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla/Thearon W. Henderson)
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla/Thearon W. Henderson)

"Tell everybody, you can't win this one," President Donald Trump said to Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner testified. "This one lifts me," Jones alleges Trump said of the NFL's new policy to punish protesting players.

Several NFL owners said in depositions that President Trump influenced the league's response to protests during the national anthem, the Wall Street Journal reported. Last week, the NFL approved a new policy that requires players on the field to stand during the anthem, and if not, the league or team can fine the player. There is an option for players to remain in the locker room for the duration of the anthem.

Owners were deposed by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the anthem protests in 2016 to shed light on police brutality and racial injustice, and claims that he was blackballed from the NFL because of his politics. He alleges that 32 teams colluded to keep him unsigned in a grievance filed against the NFL last October.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a sworn deposition that Trump told him in a phone call, "This is a very winning, strong issue for me," he said, of demanding players stand for the anthem. "Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me."

Trump infamously ripped into NFL players who protested during the anthem at a rally in Alabama last September. He referred to a player who knelt as a "son of a bitch" and advocated for repercussions against them. Later, on Twitter, Trump specified that players should be fired for such an offense.

"Depositions given by Mr. Jones and other owners indicate that Mr. Trump’s criticism pushed the league to shift its stance," the Journal reported. "League executives publicly repeated the NFL’s aim to stay out politics. But privately, they made political calculations in response to Mr. Trump’s repeated hammering of the issue."

"I was totally supportive of [the players] until Trump made his statement," Stephen Ross, the Miami Dolphins’ owner, said in his deposition. He added that the owners' conversations with Trump were discussed in league meetings. In another deposition, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he also brought up his conversation with Trump about the protests to fellow league owners, according to the Journal.

"I thought he changed the dialogue," Ross said of Trump.

And Trump's public stance is central to Kaepernick's grievance. He argues that Trump was an "organizing force in the collusion," citing various NFL owners' close relationship with the president and their political support of him. (Many donated to his presidential campaign.)

When asked by Fox's Brian Kilmeade about the new NFL policy penalizing players for protesting during the anthem, Trump supported it, saying "I brought it out," while adding that it didn't go far enough. He again questioned whether players who didn't "stand proudly," and opted to stay in the locker room under the new guidelines, should even be allowed to play; whether they should be allowed in America.

But at first, the NFL rejected Trump's vile comments against players who protested. Prior to his charge, only a few players were still kneeling and afterward, entire teams kneeled, or linked arms in solidarity, including team owners.

"Publicly, the NFL fought back and touted the moment as a display of unity," the Wall Street Journal said. "Commissioner Roger Goodell called Mr. Trump’s comments 'divisive.' The league’s chief spokesman, Joe Lockhart, called the president 'out of touch.'"

Yet, behind the scenes, owners reportedly worried about sliding viewership, which was on the decline prior to the protests, but according to the depositions, owners believed exacerbated the problem. They debated about how to respond to the protests for two years.

Eric Reid, a former teammate of Kaepernick's, who joined his protest and is currently unsigned, also filed a collusion grievance against the NFL. The NFL Players Association filed a grievance on behalf, saying at least one owner asked Reid if he would continue to kneel during the anthem, violating league policy.

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By Rachel Leah

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Anthem Policy Anthem Protests Colin Kaepernick Donald Trump Jerry Jones National Anthem Nfl Robert Kraft