Threading the needle in a way that would make most of his recent quarterbacks jealous, Bears chairman George McCaskey had a common-sense reply to his sport’s most contentious debate Thursday.
He said he supports the NFL’s new national-anthem policy, which requires players to stand for the song — at the threat of a fine — or stay in the locker room. He confirmed team owners didn’t hold a formal vote last month and that an informal poll is a common procedure among them. But he was clear he would have voted in favor of the policy.
“We think players should stand,” he said. “We encourage our players to stand.”
He then defended those who haven’t over the last two seasons, saying their chief complaints — police misconduct and social inequality — are “legitimate issues that deserve discussion and action.” The notion of protesting players being unpatriotic, he said, “is not, and was never, the case.”
McCaskey didn’t glorify or demonize either side — notable only in the NFL’s current climate, in which many owners have hesitated to publicly explain their rationale while President Donald Trump continues to pick at the issue like a scab. Trump disinvited the Super Bowl champion Eagles from a White House visit earlier this week and used the occasion to tweet a rebuke of the policy, saying that remaining in the locker room was “as disrespectful to our country as kneeling.” No Eagles players ever kneeled.
“There is no easy answer to the anthem issue,” McCaskey said. “No one is entirely right, nor entirely wrong. The policy change enacted a couple of weeks ago by NFL teams, including the Bears, isn’t perfect. But we think it will return the anthem to what it should be — a unifying force — while providing an option to those players and other team personnel who choose not to stand.”
He distanced himself from Trump.
“Our support of this wasn’t really based on anything the president was doing or not doing, or saying or not saying,” McCaskey said.
He was less specific about how the Bears, who also haven’t had a single kneeling player, would handle any protests in 2018. A former lawyer, McCaskey was asked what he’d tell players who felt their right to protest was being infringed upon.
“We think it’s a workplace issue,” he said. “I’ll leave the constitutional law questions to the constitutional law experts.”
Asked how the Bears would handle any discipline of a protesting player, he said he had discussed the issue with team president and CEO Ted Phillips and outside linebacker Sam Acho, the vice president of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee.
“We haven’t made a decision on that,” McCaskey said. “I want to give that some thought and talk to them some more about it.”
McCaskey briefly discussed the new rule with Acho, and told him to tell his teammates he was open to further conversation. McCaskey and Acho are close, having visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and discussed prison reform, as well as participating in other community outreach events together.
“He is righteous,” McCaskey said, “in the best sense of the word.”
McCaskey said he had yet to receive a letter written last week by four Chicago-area Democratic House members — Rep. Robin Kelly, Rep. Bobby Rush, Rep. Danny Davis and Rep. Jan Schakowsky — that defended the players’ right to protest and requested a meeting with the chairman.
“I’m happy to have a constructive conversation with our duly-elected representatives,” he said. “But, to me, the fact that the letter was released to the media before we’ve even had a chance to see it suggests the motivation may be more making political points than having a constructive conversation.”
Kelly spokesman James Lewis said the NFL’s government affairs office asked for the letter Tuesday to give to the McCaskeys.
“When he checks the mailbox and reads the letter,” Lewis said, “he’ll know the congresswoman’s goal is to start a constructive dialogue, not score political points.”