Kenny Stills is the type of player who could change the NFL, but it wants to change him instead

Is Kenny Stills a problem or a solution for the NFL? (Miami Herald)

DAVIE — Talk to anyone in the Dolphins’ organization, starting with Stephen Ross at the top, and there is a widespread opinion of Kenny Stills that he embodies everything what they want in a player.

He produces on Sundays, which used to be pretty much the only criteria that mattered in the NFL, but he also does everything else right. He’s reliable in practice, deeply loyal to Adam Gase’s vision and virtually unreachable on off days because he devotes so much of his free time to the betterment of South Florida’s youth.

Dolphins coaches point him out to younger players as the model of what they should aspire to be.

That would all seem to make Stills highly coveted, and the Dolphins didn’t hesitate to re-sign him a year ago, but he wonders whether he’d find himself unemployed like Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid if he wasn’t under contract. Players who have committed actual crimes have had an easier time finding work.

Actually, Stills doesn’t wonder. He’s pretty sure what would happen.

“That’s a good question,” he said, pausing to give it real consideration. “Look at what’s happening to the guys that have protested that are free agents. That’s my answer to the question.”

Another question: Who wouldn’t want this guy? And how can it be that the league simultaneously celebrates his community service and bans him from protesting on the platform he’s earned?

The NFL ham-handedly slapped together a policy last week that requires players to kneel or stay out of sight during the national anthem, and anyone who follows the Dolphins has been waiting for Stills’ response. He took questions on it for the first time after today’s practice, and his eloquence was a brilliant reminder of the depth of his cause.

It’s not rage, at least not in Stills’ case. It’s a patient, positive approach and it’s undeterred by the league telling him to let it go. It’s one of the attributes that makes him an appealing leader. Stills isn’t here to go to war. He’s here for peace.

He’s reasonable enough to see the other side, too, and while he doesn’t like that the players’ message has been twisted to be seen as unpatriotic or anti-police or whatever other interpretation is chosen, he grasps the predicament that presents for the owners.

It also hurts, and he’s not hiding that either.

The anthem clash is one of the ways in which it’s painstakingly clear that the NFL is not a partnership between players and management. Stills traces this most recent divergence back to the start of Kaepernick’s protest, when he felt the league chose to be combative rather than supportive. And even then, his words convey lament rather than anger.

“I just feel like from the beginning,” he said, “if the narrative would’ve been set one way and the league would’ve had our backs and really put the message out there the right way and tried to educate people on the work that we’re doing and why we’re doing it, we might be in a different place than we are right now.”

Stills was restrained but effective in discussing the policy, opting to let his actions speak for him and saying, “I feel like you guys know how I would feel about the anthem policy … I really don’t want to get involved in some back-and-forth and more divisiveness than we already have going.”

This is the ideal player to stand at the forefront of the movement for using football to advance racial equality, and he embraces that responsibility. The NFL would be better off with more guys like this, but it seems headed toward making him adversary. His contract expires after the 2020 season, and all bets are off when that happens.

“All I can do is continue to do the work that I’ve been doing,” Stills said when asked about the contradiction of being a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee as well the face of a protest the league seeks to squash. “The people here that work for the Miami Dolphins organization see and recognize the work that I’ve been doing and know really who I am as a person, and that’s all I can really stand and focus on.”

Stills might keep kneeling. If he doesn’t, it certainly won’t be because he’s been intimidated by Roger Goodell or Donald Trump.

He said he’ll take his time contemplating whether to continue protesting between now and the fall. Under the new policy, the team would be fined for any action like that. It also has the ability to level its own penalties on the player, which would set up an incredibly awkward situation considering how valuable he is.

He’s not preoccupied by that hypothetical, and he’s not the type to let himself be bogged down by just about anything. He believes the league is trying to silence him, but he’s still as upbeat as ever.

“Do I feel silenced?” he said. “No, I’m right here talking to you guys right now. Whenever I have a message to get out, I seem to find a way to get my message out.”

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