Russell Okung wasn’t required to take a red-eye flight from the West Coast so he could attend Tuesday’s unprecedented meeting between NFL players, owners and executives, but he felt it was his duty.
“I feel very fortunate to have the seat at the table,” said the Chargers offensive tackle, who flew from the West Coast, less than 48 hours after a victory at Oakland, so he could support his fellow players in addressing important issues.
In an effort to address the national anthem controversy and chart a path for the NFL moving forward, 13 players from eight teams huddled with commissioner Roger Goodell, union representatives including executive director DeMaurice Smith, and 11 team owners to discuss and debate options.
There were no firm decisions or commitments that came out of the discussion, only that this is the first in multiple meetings with the players in search of solutions.
“The players and the owners came to an agreement that these aren’t really player issues or owner issues, but issues that affect all of us in our communities,” Goodell said. “Our commitment from day one is to try to address these issues.”
Goodell said he expects a date for the second meeting between the sides to be decided within the next two weeks.
“We just talked about how the owners could come alongside us and we could collectively, collaboratively work together to actually create some change and some real changes,” said Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins, who acted as spokesman for the players. “So those conversations will continue. The dialogue will continue.
Jenkins said that Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco quarterback who started the trend of protesting social injustices by not standing for the national anthem, was invited to attend the meeting but opted not to. He has filed a grievance against NFL owners for collusion.
Asked why Kaepernick was not at the meeting, Jenkins said: “I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.”
Attorney Mark Geragos, who represents Kaepernick in the collusion case, issued a statement that the league did not extend the player an invitation to attend.
“Colin Kaepernick was not invited to attend today’s meeting by any official from the NFL or any team executives,” Geragos wrote. “Other players wanted him present and have asked that he attend the next meeting with the goal of forging a lasting and faithful consensus around these issues. Mr. Kaepernick is open to future participation on these important decisions.”
According to the NFL, the players’ leadership council and the NFLPA selected the players and arranged for them to come to the meeting. The decision was not up to the league.
The group met for almost four hours in advance of the regularly scheduled fall meetings of owners, which took place at a Manhattan hotel a few miles away. There were reminders of the controversy there too, as about two dozen supporters of Black Lives Matter New York held a rally in front of the hotel to voice support for players speaking out.
Jones, who recently said he would bench players who didn’t stand for the anthem, was not part of the meeting with players at league headquarters. At the owners meeting later in the day, he told reporters he would comment on the situation later, but not at this time.
In a joint statement, the NFL and NFL Players Assn. said they had “a productive meeting” and are focused on “how we can work together to promote social change and address inequality in our communities.” They reiterated that the protests are not intended to be a sign of disrespect to the flag or military, a perception that already has cost the league an untold number of fans and, by various indications, has sponsors nervous and uncomfortable.
Said 49ers owner Jed York: “There’s not a silver-bullet answer to this question. There’s, how do we continue to work on things and start knocking off every little piece that we can so we can start progressing towards a better, more racially equal society in this country?”
In addition to Okung, the players who attended the morning meeting were union president Eric Winston; Darius Butler of Indianapolis; Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas of Miami; Chris Long and Jenkins of Philadelphia; Kelvin Beachum and Demario Davis of the New York Jets; Mark Herzlich of the New York Giants; Eric Reid of San Francisco; Josh Norman of Washington; and the retired Anquan Boldin.
The meetings will continue Wednesday, with owners getting updates from the competition committee and on health and safety issues, among other topics.
The issue of players not standing for the anthem had largely subsided earlier this season, as fewer than 10 players protested in Week 2. But that was before President Trump raised the topic at a political rally in Huntsville, Ala., when he challenged NFL owners to fire any player who took a knee during the anthem.
Trump said the owners should say: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!”
He has doubled down on that many times in subsequent tweets.
“We need to be above petty attacks from anybody,” York said. “Because racial and socioeconomic inequality has existed in this country for too long. We need to get the focus on that, and we need to make sure that we make progress there.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer