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.”

[Dolphins try a new approach with defensive line under Kris Kocurek]

[Who wins a race between Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Kenny Stills?]

[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

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.

[It was easy to forget about Dolphins LB Raekwon McMillan over the past year, but don’t sleep on him now]

[Who wins a race between Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Kenny Stills?]

[Reshad Jones, Dolphin for life?]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

Column: Policy can’t make anthem controversy, protesters disappear for NFL, Miami Dolphins

Dolphins players kneel during the national anthem before a game against the Saints in London in 2017. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

The NFL unanimously voted to approve a national anthem policy that didn’t involve a vote and wasn’t unanimous.

If anyone wondered how this new policy would fly in the 2018 season, they’re not wondering now. The season doesn’t begin for more than three months, yet this policy and the rush to implement it didn’t pass the smell test for 24 hours.

Right away, players who have sparked this national conversation showed they would not be silenced or told to go to their room, even as team owners stomped their feet, wagged a finger and ordered them to do just that.

“It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic,” the league wrote in announcing the policy. “This is not and was never the case.”

(So this isn’t about patriotism.)

“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” the league wrote in the very next sentence of its press release.

(So this is about patriotism?)

Actually, it’s not. Let’s be honest here. This is, always has been and always will be about the multibillion industry that is the NFL, which is why the league wants everyone who is on the field to stand at attention during the anthem and anyone who wants to protest social injustice to be nowhere in sight, preferably in the locker room.

Fans hold up Stand Up signs for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as he kneels during the national anthem at Hard Rock Stadium on Nov. 27, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took to the podium to declare that the policy was agreed upon by all 32 owners. “Unanimous,” he said. Too bad Jed York, owner of the San Francisco 49ers, said he abstained. Too bad Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis did, too. And too bad they never actually voted, but “knew” how everyone would vote, so they just trudged onward, ESPN reported.

One can only hope Goodell “knew” how Dolphins owner Stephen Ross would vote.

If this doesn’t sound like democracy in action, put yourself in the place of one of the protesting players, or the NFL Players Association, which was left out in the cold in the process and is investigating possible recourse. The first time Goodell fines a player for violating the policy, the NFLPA will be standing up, all right.

Thursday, a couple of Dolphins players were asked about the policy but declined to comment. Money talks — or in this case, it doesn’t talk. So leave it to Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr to show why he’s so missed as TNT analyst.

“It’s just typical of the NFL,” Kerr said. “They’re just playing to their fanbase. Basically just trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people. It’s idiotic. But that’s how the NFL has conducted their business. I’m proud to be in a league that understands patriotism in America is about free speech and peacefully protesting.”

Rather than put the issue to bed, the NFL rekindled the controversy, with arguments on either side understandable to varying degrees. One that fails: “What if I did that at my job?” The last time you arrived at the office and before dashing to the coffee maker heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” was … ? The last time TV cameras zeroed in on your cubicle was … ? Pro sports is a different animal, one that can bring communities together or, in this case, split them apart.

But if you’re going to embrace an athlete, such as the Dolphins’ Kenny Stills, when he stands up on behalf of children virtually every day off he gets, perhaps you can respect his decision to kneel — not to protest symbols of this country, but what ails it. What he thinks could make it better.

President Donald Trump, who once called protesting players SOBs, applauded the policy, suggesting on Fox News that those who don’t stand shouldn’t be in the NFL and “maybe” shouldn’t be in the country.

Again, democracy?

I stand every time I hear the anthem in the pressbox and can’t fathom doing anything else. The most chilling moment I’ve experienced in Hard Rock Stadium was standing by the Dolphins’ bench before the first game back after Sept. 11, 2001, and hearing the entire stadium singing along.

But in such divisive times, I’m not so blinded by the song and the flag that I can’t understand why the players are doing what they’re doing. And this isn’t quite the black-white issue some make it out to be.

Among those ripping the new policy is Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long. He’s white. Son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. And to those who say if players feel this strongly about improving their communities they should actually do something, I say Chris Long played the entire 2017 season without taking a single paycheck. He donated it all to education.

Controversy over? Just wait until the fall, when the first player standing at attention raises a fist, sports a Jim McMahon-like headband with a political statement or gets an “#ImWithKap” tattoo.

Just wait until the fall, when the first player standing at attention raises a fist — what then, Mr. Commissioner? Wait to see what happens if any team is bold enough to remain en masse in its locker room. What then, Mr. Commissioner? What if players wear Jim McMahon-like headbands with statements etched on them, or get an “#ImWithKap” tattoo for Colin Kaepernick, who launched this debate?

What if an owner, perhaps Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, takes the league up on the option to add more teeth to the policy by making it difficult or impossible for players to be away from the field when the anthem starts?

So no, this controversy didn’t end in an Atlanta meeting room.

It won’t end in September.

It may not end, ever.

Remember Raekwon McMillan? The Dolphins sure do

Reshad Jones hopes to finish career with the Dolphins

‘This is crazy’: Raekwon McMillan talks about injury, comeback

How Ryan Tannehill has already dazzled these new Dolphins

Stills among those pushing back against anthem policy

Ryan Tannehill credits wife Lauren with helping him through dark days

Brock Osweiler impressing Miami Dolphins early in OTA’s

Albert Wilson: I’m open to race against Jakeem Grant, Kenny Stills

COLUMN: Ryan Tannehill doesn’t regret bypassing surgery, but isn’t in denial about decision

Tannehill doesn’t regret bypassing surgery

NFL won’t let players kneel on field during anthem

Good omen for Tannehill? QBs often rebound quickly after long injury layoffs

Ultimate underdog: Undrafted Dolphins DE was once homeless, partially paralyzed

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

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.”

[Adam Gase unwilling to explain why he isn’t allowing players to kneel for national anthem]

[Miami Dolphins can be one of NFL’s elite defenses]

[Grading the Dolphins after a 16-10 beating of the Titans]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook