Greg Cote

As Dolphins’ owner wrestles with anthem-kneeling, a player shows a way beyond protests

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is starting his tenth season as the owner of the Miami Dolphins.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is starting his tenth season as the owner of the Miami Dolphins. Miami Herald Staff

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is a hypocrite and a “two-faced con artist,” according to a columnist in the New York Daily News this week. Ross is neither, of course. By NFL owner standards, which admittedly are modest, Ross actually is top tier in terms of his views on social justice and racial inequality — out front on the issues that gave us Colin Kaepernick and players kneeling during the national anthem.

What Ross is is a man caught in the middle, just like his league. He founded the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE); his heart is where it should be. But on this issue he must balance the cause with the customers, and it is not at odds or hypocritical for him to be concerned with both.

Commissioner Roger Goodell and 32 teams are jammed into the same leaking boat as Ross. Players have the right of freedom of expression. They just happen to have chosen to express themselves in perhaps the most polarizing way possible, in what has become a public relations nightmare for America’s biggest sport.

So the Daily News quoted Ross as saying, “All of our players will be standing” during the anthem this coming season. But a day later, Ross issued a statement in response saying, “I have no intention of forcing our players to stand during the national anthem, and I regret that my comments have been misconstrued.”

Whether the report got it wrong or Ross did a quick pivot isn’t the point. This is: “I’ve shared my opinion with all of our players,” his statement continued. “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.”

He is right, and that seems undeniable, largely because President Donald Trump has managed to alter the national narrative by falsely accusing the kneelers of disrespecting the flag and military. The White House has done everything but paint NFL protests as traitorous.

But the polarizing aspect is real. Players who kneel have made their point. Very well, in fact. It might be time to consider that the cause can continue sans the one symbolic gesture that hits half of fans like a slap in the face.

Only three Dolphins did not stand for the national anthem last season, and only one, receiver Kenny Stills, is likely to be with the club in 2018.

Whether he chooses to continue kneeling or not, Stills has proved that the cause and one’s ability to further it do not rely on a sideline gesture.

Stills spent much of February on a 10-city odyssey of the Southeast in a small RV, visiting and speaking in Tallahassee; Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; Memphis; New Orleans; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery in Alabama. It was a trip that Justice League NYC helped facilitate. He attended a prison reform rally, participated in a women’s march, spoke to classrooms at a leadership foundation, toured the National Civil Rights Museum, spoke at a Know Your Rights camp with Kaepernick, visited the Medgar Evers House, spoke at a literacy event, walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge and met the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Stills met, spoke with and encouraged hundreds, spreading the message that athletes at their best are not one-dimensional and care about their communities and ideals like equality.

“One of my biggest takeaways is how valuable our time is to others,” Stills wrote on Twitter. “Next time you go to write a check think about volunteering instead. Mentorship is the most direct route to impacting the next generation.”

That’s an offseason month well spent by Stills, whose hands-on passion renders any sideline statement superfluous at this point, because actions beat gestures.

Ross, in that same interview in New York this month, raised a local eyebrow or two by saying, of Miami, “It’s a great city, it’s not a great sports town.”

Miami is a great sports city, to me, as one of only 13 U.S. metropolitan areas with all four major pro teams. Miami demands winners, though, or at least competence, and only the Miami Heat have delivered in this millennium. That onus is on the teams, not on local fans.

The man saying Miami is not a great sports town has a won-lost record of 65-79 in his nine seasons as principal Dolphins owner, with one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins. Fans will flock to winning. Hurricanes football saw that this past season. So will the Marlins, should it ever happen again.

It is fair to argue whether Ross has been a good Dolphins owner, and the bottom line makes that debatable.

But it is not fair to doubt Ross is a good man, let alone call him a two-faced con artist. He is a man trying to find harmony, common ground, between personal views that are idealistic and business concerns that are pragmatic. It isn’t easy, and there is no hypocrisy in the pursuit.

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