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Arthur Blank addresses player protests during the national anthem

In what has become a new tradition for NFL owners, Mr. Blank’s back and forth on the issue add little clarity and likely more controversy.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Player protests during the national anthem continue to be front and center in every NFL discussion, and the league, many owners, and the president of the United States have all generally just made things worse every time they talk about it. It’s the issue that won’t die for this league.

Arthur Blank joined the fray with some mixed messages about how the team will handle protests following the Falcons’ first training camp practice on Friday. That has been the case for most NFL teams with the exception of the Dallas Cowboys, who have threatened to punish or even outright cut anyone who kneels for the anthem, though of course we doubt they’d follow through on that for their stars. Early on, Blank addressed President Donald Trump’s role in stoking the flames.

“When you have a president that has the biggest mic in the room, that can take this in many different directions for his own reasons, it becomes very difficult,” Blank said.

Everything Blank said about Trump is accurate. The president has behaved childishly on Twitter about this issue. His M.O. here has been demanding compulsory patriotism from NFL players, despite the fact that forced patriotism isn’t actually patriotism at all. Considering so many fans frequently insist that everyone involved with sports stick to them, I’m sure everyone agrees that this is making it impossible to do so.

But despite the way the president of the United States has injected himself into this situation so publicly and dramatically, and despite the NFL’s very public debate over what to do about the protests, Blank said that the team’s focus is on doing what’s best for Atlanta.

“So we have to worry about doing the right thing for our flag, the right thing for our players, and the right thing for our fans,” Blank said.

What does that mean?

“We’ve asked our players to stand for the national anthem,” Blank said. “We’ve asked them to stand with a correct stance, with their hand over their heart, etc.”

Blank noted that the team has voluntarily done that each game, with one exception. Last year, Trump suggested that players who kneel in protest of police brutality and racial inequality should be immediately fired, referring to any player who protests as a “son of a bitch.” League-wide protests followed, with teams linking arms, kneeling, and coming together in other displays of solidarity. Grady Jarrett and former Falcons DT Dontari Poe both knelt during the anthem on the Sunday following Trump’s comments.

Neither Garrett nor Poe faced team discipline for their protest. Though Blank did say they’ve instructed players to stand, he did not address what the team will do if players choose to protest this season as the league and NFLPA work to clarify a position on the matter.

You can’t say that the Falcons haven’t been supportive of the military. I mean, sure, there was that whole matter of the Falcons and other NFL teams reaping millions of dollars to honor veterans a few years ago — which, to me, is far less patriotic and much more problematic than kneeling to protest the disproportionate violence people of color face at the hands of law enforcement and systemic racial inequality in our country.

Dan Quinn recently won the Salute to Service award for his commitment to honoring our military. The Falcons sent Quinn, Matt Bryant, Ben Garland (formerly active duty Air Force and a current National Guardsman, in addition to being a badass lineman who can play on either side of the ball), and Alex Mack, along with AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon on a USO trip to Iraq this offseason. The team typically honors the military during one training camp practice and throughout the regular season, and everything they do surrounding the brave men and women who serve our country seems sincere.

But despite the endless debate, these protests are not and never have been about the flag or the anthem or in opposition to law enforcement or the military. They have always been about what our nation can and should aspire to be, and the liberty and justice for all that the flag and the anthem are supposed to represent.

And even though Blank and the team expect Falcons players to stand, Blank acknowledged players’ right to protest.

“Having said all of that, I say players do have first amendment rights,” Blank said. “And if you talk to many military, they will tell you what they fought for, also, was not just the flag, the fabric ... but what it stood for, and what it stands for is our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”

I agree wholeheartedly with everything Blank said there. But there’s an inherent conflict between mandating players to stand with their hands over their hearts during the national anthem and then saying they have a first amendment right to protest.

Blank did note that some players may continue to protest, but he doesn’t think it will happen in Atlanta — and if I had to guess, that’s probably because the team told them they have to stand.

“If you have players that still feel that’s the way to express themselves, they will,” Blank said. “I think on our roster, they have seen the progress that we’ve made collectively in terms of the social injustice issues, both players and our ownership and our franchise, coaches alike, and I don’t think you’ll see that from us.”

The team has worked with players to identify areas where they can work together toward social justice, such as bail bond reform, community involvement, and law enforcement accountability, to name a few.

But the Atlanta area, and the nation as a whole, have a long way to go toward true equality. The injustice and oppression players have protested by kneeling or raising a fist during the national anthem aren’t going away, and my educated guess is that the protests won’t either, no matter how difficult the league tries to make it to go through with them.

Blank said it should be up to the players.

“But it’s far better, in my opinion, to have somebody make those decisions themselves than hit them over the head with a hammer,” Blank said.

If that’s the case, though, then he shouldn’t tell Falcons players that they have to stand.