A new football year dawned for the Dolphins on Thursday.
But the same divisive, delicate issue remained:
What to do about players who feel morally compelled to protest against racial inequality during the national anthem?
Adam Gase, the Dolphins’ coach, reiterated that no decision had been made on potential punishment for those who kneel during the anthem but all but ruled out resorting to the nuclear option: Suspending the protesters for up to four games.
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“I mean, if anybody knew actual rules in the NFL, good luck suspending somebody,” Gase said. “It takes about 5,000 things before anybody can get suspended by a club.”
That important bit of context was missing last week, when the Dolphins became a national piñata over the issue. The Associated Press reported that the Dolphins’ 2018 rulebook included a clause stipulating that players who protest could be suspended up to four games.
But that rule was simply “a placeholder,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said; the Dolphins believed they needed to put a policy in writing before the start of camp, so they simply reiterated the league’s stance. Still, the fan anger was immediate and fierce and convinced the NFL to suspend its broader policy until an agreement can be reached with the players’ union.
“I just kind of wait and see what we’re told by the NFL and NFLPA, what’s going on as far as their conversations go,” Gase said. “I wait until we actually start games. It seems like things change a lot.”
The latest controversy was so fast and fluid that receiver Kenny Stills, the Dolphins’ de facto leader on racial issues, basically missed it. He was in Nebraska, working out and bonding with teammates on an unofficial receiver getaway, and his phone was off.
“I really haven’t put too much thought into it,” said Stills, who has knelt during the anthem during the last two seasons. “We’ve got to clean up how things are looking. Hopefully, ... they can figure something out and things can be a little bit more clear.”
When asked what he wants the rule to be, Stills responded: “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.”
That seems unlikely, if Jerry Jones’ influence truly is as great as most believe. The Dallas Cowboys owner hates the protests and insisted this week that his players will all stand this year, regardless of what the league decides.
Stills’ reaction to those remarks?
“I wouldn’t expect anything different.”
Stills is the last man standing in Miami of those who regularly knelt in past years, but he does have new allies in his fight for social justice. Veteran defensive end Robert Quinn, acquired in a trade this offseason, raised his fist during the anthem last year and does not seem to appreciate efforts to force him to stop.
“I’ll just say one thing: It’s called freedom of speech,” Quinn said. “Simple as that. It’s freedom of speech.”
Whatever the new policy, it’s bound to leave someone upset. Could it lead to divisiveness within the locker room as it has throughout the country?
“I think our guys do a good job of communicating with each other,” Gase said. “I think they do a good job of when issues come up, they get together and hammer it out and talk to each other. These guys aren’t shy about speaking up. They’ve done a good job of making sure, as a group, they talk through things.
“... These guys aren’t shy. They won’t shy away from things. I like that they are able to do that and have open conversations.”