NFL national anthem policy: Kenny Stills, Robert Quinn want free speech

Kenny Stills wants the NFL to have no policy on the national anthem. (AP)

DAVIE — The simplest and most ideal solution Kenny Stills is offering amid the NFL’s national anthem policy debate is to get rid of it altogether.

The league and the NFLPA are discussing revisions to the rules the owners enacted in March, and the mandate for players to stand or stay out of sight is on hold for now. The two Dolphins players who have demonstrated in the past, Stills and defensive end Robert Quinn, are waiting for that resolution until they decide how they’ll handle the anthem this season.

But if they had a say, it’d be an easy choice.

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“I’ll just say one thing: It’s called freedom of speech,” Quinn said when asked what should happen. “Simple as that. It’s freedom of speech.”

Stills agreed, saying, “Obviously I’d like to see there be no policy at all, and the guys have a choice to go out there and do what they want to, and we can support each other and the decisions we want to make.”

This was the first time Quinn and Stills have spoken to the media since the Dolphins drew national attention last week when an Associated Press report indicated they submitted documents listing suspension as a possible penalty to for violating the anthem rules.

The team later said it hasn’t made a decision on the policy yet, and the NFL and the union are continuing to discuss a potential resolution. Dolphins coach Adam Gase said he’s waiting until something comes down from the league, but can’t envision a player being suspended over the national anthem.

The impasse didn’t stop Cowboys owner Jerry Jones from declaring that his players will be required to stand for the anthem and won’t have the option of remaining out of sight.

“I wouldn’t expect anything different,” Stills said of Jones.

Quinn and Stills said there hasn’t been much dialogue with management about the issue and their attention is centered on preparing for the upcoming season. The Dolphins opened training camp today and play their first preseason game Aug. 9 at home against Tampa Bay.

Stills has worked frequently with owner Stephen Ross in social justice efforts and appears to have had a good relationship with him during his four years playing for the Dolphins. He hasn’t spoken much with Ross about the national anthem issue since last season.

Quinn, who came in on a trade with the Rams this offseason, said he’s never discussed it with Ross.

“No one brought it up,” Quinn said. “Until we have a discussion, that’s just where it is right now. If the topic comes up, then it comes up. But right now, I’ll hold my opinion to myself and try to do my best to make this football team better.”

While Stills kneeled the last two seasons, Quinn raised a fist during the anthem last year. The NFL’s no-kneeling policy did not specifically address an action like Quinn’s, though it could be covered under the requirement to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.”

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NFL national anthem policy: Adam Gase doesn’t envision suspensions

Dolphins players Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas wait in the tunnel during the anthem before an October 2017 game. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — As the NFL’s national anthem policy remains uncertain, Dolphins coach Adam Gase can’t foresee any player missing games as a punishment for violating whatever rule the league implements.

Gase, whose team came under fire recently when a report indicated it might suspend players who kneel or demonstrate during the anthem, said today that outcome seems unrealistic.

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“If anybody knew actual rules in the NFL, good luck suspending somebody,” he said. “It takes about 5,000 things before anybody can get suspended by a club.”

He added, “I’m just telling you, other incidents that have happened in the past, it’s harder to suspend guys than what anybody realizes.”

Protests during the anthem have been an issue since 2016, Gase’s first year as head coach of the Dolphins. Since then, the team’s response has been all over the place. There was a stretch last season in which players were required to stay in the locker room if they weren’t going to stand, but that policy was pulled back.

It’s been a similarly turbulent ride for the NFL, which believed it finally solved the problem by laying down rules in March that required players to stand or stay off the field. It put that policy on hold after the NFLPA filed a grievance this month, and the league and players union agreed to continue trying to find a solution that suits both sides.

That takes the issue out of Gase’s hands for the moment. He doesn’t have to answer questions about a policy that currently isn’t in place.

“I just kinda wait and see what we’re told by the NFL and NFLPA, what’s going on as far as their conversations go,” he said. “I wait until we actually start games. It seems like things change a lot.”

The Dolphins have two key players who have demonstrated in the past. Wide receiver Kenny Stills kneeled during the anthem the last two seasons, and new defensive end Robert Quinn raised a first last year while with the Rams.

Neither player has indicated their plans for the upcoming season, but both spoke today in favor of players having the freedom to express themselves.

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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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NFL national anthem policy: Dolphins WR Kenny Stills gives his thoughts

Kenny Stills weighs in on the national anthem controversy. (AP)

DAVIE — Since the NFL implemented a no-kneeling policy to curtail player protests during the national anthem last week, no Dolphins player’s opinion has been more eagerly awaited than Kenny Stills’.

Stills has been one of the faces of the protest movement the league is trying to stop, yet he also was nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award last season and twice received the team’s community service award.

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Here are a few excerpts from what he said about the anthem issue, the players’ movement and the work he’s been doing in the offseason:

What is your opinion of the new anthem policy?

“I feel like you guys know how I would feel about the anthem policy. I just want to continue to focus on the work that I’m doing, the work that the rest of these guys are doing in our communities to make change. I really don’t want to get involved in some back-and-forth and more divisiveness than we already have going.”

Have you decided whether you will kneel or demonstrate during the anthem this season?
“No. We’ve got plenty of time. I think I’m gonna continue to do the work that I’ve been doing as far as being in the community and trying to lead and do things the right way and try to make change. When the time comes where I have to make a decision, I’ll make a decision.”

How would you feel about being a free agent right now?
“That’s a good question. Look at what’s happening to the guys that have protested that are free agents. That’s my answer to the question.”

Do you think the original message of the protest has been distorted, and do you understand why that’s causing an issue for the owners?
“Yes, I do understand that the message has been changed, but I also understand that as the NFL being the most-watched sport in the United States and one of the most-watched sports in the world, they have an opportunity to set the bar and set the standard and change the narrative and write the narrative how they want it to. I just feel like from the beginning, 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.”

How do you feel about the work your movement has accomplished beyond the protests?
“I always feel like I can do more. But this past offseason, this past season, it was a great feeling for me. It was an honor to be recognized and put out there for the Walter Payton Man of the Year and the work that I’ve been doing and the road trip that I went on — I’m just really encouraged, honestly, by all the work that I’m seeing other people doing across the country. It inspires me to continue to want to do more.”

How do you reconcile being honored by the NFL and the Dolphins, but also being the face of something the league is trying to eradicate?
“All I can do is continue to do the work that I’ve been doing. 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. I understand that they put this policy in place. I guess at the end of the day, it is what it is.”

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New national anthem policy a low point for free speech in the NFL

Dolphins players Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas wait in the tunnel during the anthem before an October 2017 game. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

How gracious of the NFL to allow its players the privilege of hanging on to their precious freedom of speech.

As long as they exercise it where no one can hear them.

Just when it seemed like Roger Goodell and the owners couldn’t botch the national anthem issue any worse, here comes this week’s so-called solution. Never underestimate this league’s capacity for debacles.

The new rule is essentially this: You will stand for the anthem and “show respect” or stay out of sight in the tunnel. That’s identical to what the Dolphins implemented last season with minimal explanation before rescinding it within weeks at the request of their players.

National anthem at Hard Rock Stadium. (Bill Ingram/The Post)

It’s bad that the new policy is full of holes, putting coaches in a spot where they’ll have to uphold something ambiguous and setting up what they’ll see as needless conflicts between them and their players.

It’s bad that the players had zero input, undercutting all the propaganda the NFL puts forth about this league being a partnership and how football is family.

It’s bad that this is framed as an issue of patriotism, when few actions are as patriotic as risking future employment prospects because you want this country to be better. The protesting players aren’t making an anti-American, anti-military statement, and Donald Trump doesn’t get the final word on how their demonstrations should be interpreted.

It’s even a little bad that the league wasn’t sophisticated enough to do its dirty work without tripping over itself. The new protocol passed in a slipshod process that sounded like a straw poll. It took mere minutes before some owners voiced dissent and less than a day before ESPN uncovered that there was never an official vote despite Goodell declaring there was unanimous support.

But the real problem isn’t the flaws in the policy. It’s the compulsion to form a policy at all.

While the league might technically have the legal right to limit how players express themselves in the workplace, why does it want to? Does a 10 percent drop in ratings — at least some of which is self-inflicted by how much the NFL has diluted its product — for what is still by far the nation’s most popular television program justify quieting the men who make it worth watching? Just because it can doesn’t mean it should.

Dolphins players kneel during their game at the Jets last season. (AP)

The protests have been twisted by talking heads and politicians, and the actual message has been grossly misrepresented. It’s not anti-police, anti-military, anti-Republican or anti-white. How many times do the players have to say that? It wasn’t even anti-Trump until he went on the offensive.

It constantly needs to be restated that their purpose is to call for racial equality, which still eludes our country. Shining a light on it is a positive for all of us.

It’s not a conversation that needs to be shut down. Even the players who disagree with the demonstrations ought to bristle at the league clamping down on their colleagues’ freedom.

The protests initially prompted the NFL to launch a campaign and a series of meetings aimed at coming alongside the protesting players, but the new anthem policy brings motives into question. Was it all just to get them to stop kneeling?

Two days before it handed down the anthem policy, the league worked with the Players Coalition to finalize a $90 million commitment to social justice programs. That money will help people regardless of the true intent behind it, but it’ll won’t feel so heartfelt if it eventually surfaces that it was meant to balance out what came next.

Zeroing in on South Florida, look at the potential mess this creates for the Miami Dolphins, who had a hard enough time navigating the situation the past two years.

The Dolphins and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality have many meaningful efforts running locally and nationally, and a lot of them are geared toward social justice.

Stephen Ross has a track record of working toward racial equality. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

They do extensive work with Miami-Dade County schools in the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project, which uses mentors and educators to help minority students graduate and become men who will contribute to society. Ross personally funds the budget for R.I.S.E. The organization awarded grants to 11 community-driven groups this year, including several that focus on empowering young black people. They also facilitate various events that with youth programs and local police departments.

Ross’ passion is evident, but he doesn’t have the answer for this issue. He was the league’s most vocal owner backing players who protested in 2016. Last year he said he wants players to stand. He’s publicly agreed with some of Trump’s comments on it and denounced others. No doubt he’s not on board with the president’s most recent pronouncement that “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country” if you don’t stand for the anthem.

Ross was in the room when the NFL laid out its policy, and there’s been no indication of what he voiced in there. He hasn’t issued a statement.

The most prominent protestor on his team is receiver Kenny Stills, an exemplary employee in every way. Stills is what every company wants. He’s arguably the best skill player on the roster, an ideal leader in the locker room and winner of the team’s community service award the last two seasons.

The Dolphins aren’t really going to do battle with Kenny Stills, are they? The guy who does everything right?

Gase wants to devote all of his attention to what’s on the field, not the anthem issue. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

If he kneels, as he has the last two seasons, he’ll be in violation of league and team rules (the NFL left room for organizations to formulate their own policy as long as it’s compatible with the league’s). It’s unfathomable that Adam Gase would consider penalizing Stills over this with even so much as a light fine.

That might be the most complicated individual scenario in the league. It’ll be much simpler for teams when it’s the 53rd guy on the roster.

Gase, by the way, obviously wants no part of any of this. Every waking hour is devoted to scheming outside zone runs and bubble screens. Someone has to tell him when a holiday’s coming up or when hurricane preparations need to be made. For better or worse, he spends little time concerning himself with anything beyond the football field. He truly just wants to coach.

This feels like a dark hour for free speech, but there’s an upside to the fiasco. Trying to stifle a movement invariably makes it louder, and some players who have been wavering about whether to get involved will be compelled to join it.

It looks like players are still allowed to raise a fist or find some other way to express themselves as long as don’t drop to a knee, and the media will report vigilantly on players who stay in the locker room and continue enhance their platform.

Maybe fans will take up the cause and kneel. Goodell can’t fine them.

Best of all, this policy might very well crumble before the NFL ever gets a chance to enforce it. There are months to go before the first preseason game and longer until opening weekend, and this edict hardly looks sturdy enough to last that long.

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NFL national anthem protest: Stephen Ross won’t force players to stand

Stephen Ross now says there won’t be a team policy against kneeling. (Melanie Bell/The Post)

A day after saying flatly that all Dolphins players will be standing for the national anthem next season, owner Stephen Ross issued a statement backing off that comment and making clear there will be no anti-kneeling policy.

“I have no intention of forcing our players to stand during the anthem and I regret that my comments have been misconstrued,” Ross said. “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.”

Ross intended to say that his players “should” stand for the anthem, a team spokesman explained. The New York Daily News quoted him saying Monday, “All of our players will be standing.” Ross and the Dolphins did not claim that he was misquoted.

Dolphins players have been at the forefront of the leagues protest movement since 2016, when four of them kneeled during the national anthem at the season opener to speak out against racial inequality in America, and Ross was one of the most vocal owners in the NFL supporting their cause and their freedom of expression.

The team briefly had a no-kneeling policy last season, when coach Adam Gase required players to either stand for the anthem or remain in the tunnel and out of sight. Gase said that was his rule, but it came out shortly after Ross said it was time for players “to stand and salute the flag.”

Donald Trump’s repeated comments about kneeling being unpatriotic and anti-military have had a role in Ross’ thinking. He referenced that last October when the team made the rule and again this week when saying players will be standing.

Last week, Ross said he is in communication with Trump and praised some of the work he’s done in the financial sector as president.

Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas kneeled for most of last season, and all three said they were not against the military or the police. All three have been actively involved in community service involving police and members of the military.

“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,” Ross said today. “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.”

In addition to owning the Dolphins and other business ventures, Ross is the founder of R.I.S.E., an organization that promotes equality in sports, and personally funds its $3.5 million annual budget. R.I.S.E. has worked with more than 30,000 students, coaches and athletic staff members at high schools, colleges and the NFL.

The Houston Texans were pulled into a similar controversy as the Dolphins because of a Houston Chronicle report saying the team is not considering any free agents or draft prospects who have protested or are likely to protest. The Texans released a statement calling that article “categorically false and without merit.”

The NFL Players Association released a statement today saying it has received assurances from the league that players’ right to demonstrate will be protected.

“We are glad that the Houston Texans and Miami have clarified their positions to be consistent with what was confirmed with our union leadership and we expect all other NFL teams to maintain the same commitment to protecting those rights,” the statement said.

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NFL national anthem protest: Dolphins owner Stephen Ross says no kneeling

Stephen Ross is against the players kneeling in 2018. (Getty Images)

[Update, March 6, 11:25 a.m.: Ross said this morning he does not intend to require players to stand for the national anthem.]

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has gone back and forth on the issue of NFL players protesting racial inequality over the past two years by kneeling during the national anthem. He was once one of the most outspoken owners in support of those players, but now is firmly against those demonstrations.

Ross told the New York Daily News on Monday that “all of our players will be standing” when Miami begins the 2018 season.

Several Dolphins players have kneed during the anthem during the last two seasons. Wide receiver Kenny Stills, who won the team’s award for community service each year, has been kneeling since the 2016 opener. Julius Thomas, Michael Thomas, Arian Foster, Laremy Tunsil, Jay Ajayi, Maurice Smith, Jelani Jenkins and Jordan Phillips have also protested during the anthem, and a few of those players are expected to still be on the team this year.

The organization did not immediately return a request to clarify or elaborate on Ross’ comments.

Stills has not directly responded to Ross’ comments, but tweeted out a video this morning of comedian Dave Chappelle talking about white people’s outrage over the protests.

As he did last fall, when the team briefly banned kneeling, Ross is siding with Donald Trump’s position. Trump has ripped anthem protests repeatedly, and Ross believes he turned the issue into one of patriotism and supporting the military.

“When that message changed, and everybody was interpreting it as that was the reason, then I was against kneeling,” Ross said. “I like Donald. I don’t support everything he says. Overall, I think he was trying to make a point, and his message became what kneeling was all about. From that standpoint, that is the way the public is interpreting it. So I think that’s really incumbent upon us to adopt that. That’s how, I think, the country now is interpreting the kneeling issue.”

Ross added that he remains in communication with Trump. He made those comments after being honored in New York by the Jackie Robinson Foundation for championing equality.

Last week, in an appearance on CNBC with defensive end Cameron Wake at his side, Ross praised Trump for the thriving stock market. When asked to give him a grade as president, he said it was too early to tell.

“Things are going well,” Ross said. “You can’t agree with some of the things, but Donald is really getting people to think differently.”

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s comments last September, Ross answered with a statement calling for “unifying leadership… not more divisiveness.” He defended kneeling players as “smart, young men of character who want to make our world a better place for everyone.”

Just two weeks later, Ross called for players to stop kneeling, and coach Adam Gase implemented a policy requiring that them to either stand for the anthem or remain in the tunnel.

“Whenever you’re dealing with the flag, you’re dealing with something different,” Ross said then. “(Trump) has changed that whole paradigm of what protest is. I think it’s incumbent upon the players today, because of how the public is looking at it, is to stand and salute the flag.”

Publicly and privately, players around the NFL have argued that Trump doesn’t get to determine the purpose of their protest or dictate the conversation around it.

Gase, had mostly avoided the topic since it surfaced in the summer of 2016 and said it wasn’t his place to limit players’ freedom of expression. When he banned kneeling, he refused to explain why he was doing so.

“I don’t need a reason,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

Within a month, he reversed course. When Stills, Thomas and Thomas confronted Gase about the rule and said it was interfering with their pre-game routine, he rescinded it. He gave minimal explanation for that, too.

Gase said last week he would not be averse to drafting any players who want to protest during the national anthem.

“My biggest thing I’m looking for is–everything’s football related to me,” he said. “We support our guys when they do anything outside our building to try to help our community. In Kenny’s case, he’s really branched out to not only South Florida, outside of there. We’re very supportive of trying to help as many people as our players can try to reach. I feel like our guys do a really good job of that.”

Separately, Ross said he’s been in touch with former Yankees star Derek Jeter, who recently took over the Marlins and discussed some of the obstacles for a team succeeding in South Florida.

“Miami is a great city. It’s not a great sports town,” Ross told the Daily News. “They haven’t been winning. He has to start all over again. I think you have to be patient and give him the time it’s going to take to build a winner. He’s a very smart, capable guy. He was a great baseball player. Hopefully he’ll be a great executive. The best way to get a fan base is to win.”

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2018 NFL Draft: Are Miami Dolphins averse to players who protest?

The Dolphins have had multiple players protest during the national anthem the last two years. (Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS—It’s been a tense couple of years for the NFL when it comes to players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in the United States, and the Dolphins have been right in the middle of it.

Owner Stephen Ross went back and forth on whether the players should kneel, and coach Adam Gase did the same. Gase instituted a policy requiring those players to remain in the locker room during the anthem, then rescinded it after a meeting initiated by Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas.

Gase reiterated throughout the last two seasons that anthem protests weren’t much of a concern to him overall and said today at the NFL Combine that it won’t factor into draft evaluations.

“My biggest thing I’m looking for is—everything’s football related to me,” he said. “We support our guys when they do anything outside our building to try to help our community. In Kenny’s case, he’s really branched out to not only South Florida, outside of there. We’re very supportive of trying to help as many people as our players can try to reach. I feel like our guys do a really good job of that.”

The Dolphins had several players kneel before last season’s game at the Jets, which came shortly after Donald Trump made derogatory comments about Colin Kaepernick and others who protest. One of those players was undrafted rookie Maurice Smith, and his choice did not jeopardize his standing on the roster in any way.

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NFL national anthem protest: Dolphins continue kneeling at Carolina

Miami Dolphins players kneel during the national anthem before their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 13, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three Miami Dolphins players continued their protest for racial equality by kneeling during the national anthem before tonight’s game at Carolina.

Wide receiver Kenny Stills, tight end Julius Thomas and safety Michael Thomas took a knee on the sideline as servicemen held a field-sized American flag a few feet in front of them. The NFL is honoring military members throughout the month as part of its salute to Service campaign, and the Panthers had servicemen lining their entrance for player introductions today.

This is the second straight week the three players have kneeled now that coach Adam Gase has rescinded his policy that they must stay off the field if they’re not going to stand.

The trio kneeled among several standing teammates. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was to Stills’ left and put his arm around him during the anthem.

Stills and Michael Thomas have been kneeling since the beginning of last season. Julius Thomas began doing it in September in response to Donald Trump’s inflammatory remarks about protesting players.

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Three Dolphins players discuss national anthem, meeting with Roger Goodell

Roger Goodell joined Dolphins players for their event with the North Miami Police Department on Tuesday. (Miami Dolphins)

DAVIE—Roger Goodell did not come to South Florida to insist that Dolphins players stand for the national anthem.

In joining Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas for an event with the North Miami Police Department on Tuesday, he had good dialogue with three players who have been kneeling in their protest against racial inequality in this country.

Stills said Goodell made no demands about the anthem. They chatted for “a couple of minutes here and there” throughout the day, which included a ride-along, and it meant something to Stills to see him take a genuine interest in their community outreach.

“Honestly, he was proud of us for putting on what we were putting on and happy that he could spend some time with us,” he said today. “I didn’t expect him to be there. It was nice of him to take some time out of his day to make it and see what we were doing.”

The sense from Thomas and Thomas was that Goodell is interested in helping lead a joint initiative with players, owners and the league to work toward the societal changes for which the players have been pushing.

Michael Thomas declined to give specifics on what that program would entail, but it is likely to be discussed at next week’s league meeting. Players have been invited to attend.

“With the solution that’s going to come out very soon as the players have been working with the P.A., the league, the owners, I think everybody’s gonna see it wasn’t just a blind stance,” Michael Thomas said. “We were working toward a solution this whole time.”

He added, “I think it’s going to be a positive step in the right direction. It’s not the end-all solution, but it’s going to be a positive step in the right direction that we were able to actually do something.”

Goodell’s visit comes at a time when the league is highly conscious of players demonstrating during the anthem and growing concerns that it will impact their business. Donald Trump has heightened that tension by taking aim at players who protest, going as far as to call anyone who kneels during the anthem “a son of a bitch” who should be fired.

Trump’s pressure appears to have made at least a little headway with the Dolphins’ organization. Dating back to last season, Miami has been one of the most prominent teams when it comes to protesting and owner Stephen Ross has repeatedly supported the players. Last weekend, though, he said it was “incumbent upon the players…to stand and salute the flag,” at least in part because Trump is trying to make it an issue of patriotism.

Interestingly, it was revealed hours later that coach Adam Gase had instituted a new policy stating players must stand or stay in the locker room. Stills, Thomas and Thomas did not take the field for the anthem before Sunday’s game against the Titans. Stills indicated he will do that again this Sunday at Atlanta.

Gase has declined twice to give an explanation for the rule, saying only that it was his decision and players are on board with it. Prior to last weekend, he had barely said anything on the topic other than backing the players’ freedom of expression.

“There’s nothing that says they can’t do that,” he said in September 2016 when asked if he’d discourage his players from demonstrating. “Our guys in our locker room, if they have certain stances they stand behind, then it’s not my right to say you can’t do that.”

The players occasionally seem as though they’d like to move past the national anthem issue, with Stills doing so at the beginning of this season. He felt the kneeling had made its point—and it has, given the NFL’s increased interest in partnering with them in their cause—and sought to find more direct ways to impact the community. He did not kneel before the season opener, but changed his mind after Trump’s comments the following weekend.

It’s possible the kneeling movement has served its intended purpose now, after a year-plus of drawing attention to injustices. And if the end result is a truly impactful league-wide program, that appears to be a victory for the players who protested.

“The whole point of kneeling has never been about disrespecting anyone,” Julius Thomas said. “It’s never been about slighting the efforts that our soldiers and law enforcement officers and public safety individuals have done. We have tremendous respect for them.

“The purpose of the kneeling was to hope that through the protest, it could be addressed. It could be something where people sit back and go, ‘It wasn’t something I was paying attention to before or that I thought a lot about, but there’s some things that should change. There’s some inequalities that should be addressed.’ That was the entire point of the protest, and it’s encouraging to see people start to understand and put thought and time into it.”

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