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NFLPA’s Ben Watson says union must ‘keep pushing the truth’

Executive committee member on Trump’s war with NFL and how past two seasons could affect future collective bargaining

As President Donald Trump continues to attack NFL players, the league’s failure to speak out in support of its workforce is telling.

NFL owners and executives, most likely feeling boxed in because they capitulated to Trump by writing a new national anthem policy and are worried about further inflaming an already volatile situation, declined to counter the president’s remarks after he canceled a White House event this week to celebrate the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl championship. But Trump’s criticism of the Eagles for what he views as a lack of patriotism, along with criticism of all NFL players who have peacefully protested racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the anthem, has prompted pushback from the NFL Players Association.

In an interview with The Undefeated this week, New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, a member of the union’s executive committee and a former player rep, commented on Trump’s ongoing war with the NFL, the bad feelings engendered by the owners’ decision to unilaterally implement a new anthem policy and how the events of the past two seasons could affect future collective bargaining discussions. Based on what has occurred recently, Watson said, the NFLPA clearly has reason to be concerned.

“Well, a lot has happened, and I’m not just talking about [Monday] or the day before,” he said. “It’s imperative that we, the union, are able to weed out all of the back-and-forth, the name-calling and bickering that we see when it comes to the public discourse, and have a strong stance to continue defending our players and supporting our players.

“And we also have to continue to push the narrative, the true narrative, that our players love their country and they love the military. We have to keep pushing the truth. We shouldn’t have to say that, but it seems we’re backed into a place where we do have to keep saying that. And we will keep saying that.”

After word emerged Monday that the Eagles would send an unusually small contingent — two league sources said the team’s traveling party would likely include fewer than 10 players, and possibly none who are African-American — to be honored at a scheduled White House event Tuesday, Trump rescinded the invitation without notifying the Eagles and then continued to stoke divisiveness over protests during the anthem. In a statement, Trump wrote that the Eagles disagree “with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.” For the record, no Eagles players took a knee last season. Regardless, Trump, who for almost nine months has blasted players in speeches and tweetstorms for demonstrating to help others, remained on the offensive as the commissioner’s office stayed silent.

The NFLPA would have welcomed the backing of owners, or at least a statement correcting Trump’s inaccuracies, because “this kind of falls into line with a lot of other things we’ve seen from [him]. To me, it’s dishonorable,” Watson said. “Obviously, the person in that office has said some things that have offended a lot of people.

“For someone to invite a group to the White House to honor them for winning in their respective sport or something else heroic, it’s upon the invitee to accept or decline. For you to rescind your offer because enough people aren’t coming … to me, that is not presidential. That’s below the office of the president.”

And Trump appears to have been emboldened by the NFL’s new anthem policy.

Last month, owners approved changes that require players to stand if they are on the field during the performance, but it gives them the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer. Clubs will be subject to a fine if a player or any other member of an organization fails to show respect for the anthem. Players will no longer be allowed to sit or kneel, and the league has empowered clubs to discipline players and other employees for violating the policy. Initially, Trump expressed his approval of the portion of the policy about standing on the sidelines. Increasingly, however, he has said that the policy is unacceptable because players should not be permitted to remain in the locker room.

With how Trump has effectively seized upon the issue to gin up excitement in his base, and the owners’ ongoing fear about angering a large section of both its fan base and corporate partners, Watson said he could not rule out the possibility of the NFL making additional changes to the policy.

“At this point, I would not be surprised to what length the owners capitulate to the president,” he said. “Really, what this [change in policy] about is that the league, because of several attacks and insults on players and on the league by the president of the United States, has responded in this way, which I don’t think would have happened if someone else had been president. And I’m not talking about a Democrat or a Republican. I’m just talking about the type of person who did not say these things.”

The NFL’s handling of the issue has not helped its relationship with the NFLPA, which wanted a seat at the table during the decision-making process. Owners didn’t provide one. The question is, are owners even interested in fence-mending?

“Well, moving forward, we want to be partners with the league, especially when it comes to CBA talks (the current deal ends in 2021) as well as things that are going on now,” Watson said. “We want to be at the table together. We want to make decisions, especially big decisions, collectively instead of having it be a unilateral approach where the league makes decisions without player input. It’s better for everyone if we do it together.

“On the one hand, it is concerning that this hasn’t happened here. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean it has to continue this way. And the good thing is, the decision that was made in Atlanta … all the owners weren’t totally behind it.

“Yes, players weren’t asked our opinion, but there were some owners who really weren’t involved in it either. There was a fracturing there that you see with owners. It doesn’t have to continue this way. But no matter what happens, we have to continue to protect our players and their rights.”

A league spokesman, contacted seeking comment about the NFL’s handling of the anthem changes, referenced commissioner Roger Goodell’s comments after the policy was approved in Atlanta late last month.

“Anything I have to say to the union, I will say to them directly,” Goodell said that day, according to a transcript of his comments. “I do that all the time, but I will do that to them directly.

“There has been incredible engagement with the players on this. We have talked to tens if not hundreds of players on this over the last year or so to get their input and understand their positions. We want to respect their positions.”

Again, however, the union had no voice in implementing the policy.

Some NFL observers have criticized the union for the perception that it was slow to act in publicly supporting former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ignited a civil rights movement in sports by first sitting and then kneeling during the anthem before the 2016 season. The still-unemployed passer has filed a grievance against the league alleging that owners have conspired to ruin his career. Watson said that behind the scenes the NFLPA has been highly supportive of Kaepernick as well as unsigned safety Eric Reid, who was the first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick when they were 49ers teammates and who also has filed a grievance against owners.

“The union is always prepared. The union is always being proactive. And the union is always thinking about scenarios, that even us players have no idea about, that may be coming down the pike,” Watson said. “What I’ve found in my experience with the NFLPA … is that we talk to a lot of lawyers, all the time, about protecting players’ rights. There are a lot of issues we look at and ask, ‘Look, is this something the NFL can do?’ That won’t change.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.