While Joe Gibbs hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2007, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee told FOX Business that the national anthem protests that have roiled the league in recent months remind him of a persistent dilemma in the coaching world – how to guide a locker room through a crisis that is bigger than sports.
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The anthem protests, which began during the 2016 NFL season when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt to call attention to social and racial injustice, divided the NFL and left both teams and league officials scrambling for a solution. Gibbs, who coached the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles from 1981 to 1992 and returned to the team for a second stint from 2004 to 2008, said the key to navigating such a divisive issue is to understand the different viewpoints.
“I think, for me, I believe there’s a lot of people that sacrificed for that flag. That carries the weight for me and what I think,” Gibbs told FOX Business. “But as far as handling issues like that, if you’re going to coach and manage things, when something like that comes up, I think you’ve got to do a good job of analyzing it, understanding that there’s a lot of people in there that are going to feel differently about it and what the reasons are for that. That’s part of being a good manager.”
The anthem debate intensified during the 2017 season after President Donald Trump and former corporate sponsor Papa John’s criticized the league’s response to the situation. Some players knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick, while others insisted it was essential to stand and honor the flag, regardless of other factors.
After a series of summits with player representatives, the NFL’s 32 owners agreed last January to contribute at least $89 million to fund social justice campaigns. The league has not changed its rules on whether players must stand for the anthem; at present, the NFL’s operations manual says players “should stand at attention,” though they are not required by rule.
Gibbs said the dilemma that anthem protests pose to NFL locker rooms reminded him of a tragic situation he encountered in 2007, during his last season as head coach of the Redskins. Sean Taylor, a standout safety and team leader, died at age 24 after he was shot by an intruder at his home in Florida. At the time, the Redskins were in the midst of a playoff race.
Gibbs said clear communication with his players helped him to guide the locker room through the emotional period. The Redskins finished that season with a 9-7 record and a playoff berth, but lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the wild card round.
“Nothing prepares you for that. It was something we had to work our way through,” Gibbs said. “In life, particularly in sports and the things I’ve been in, there’s constantly things coming up that are going to challenge you. You’ve got to understand how [the players] feel, the fact that there are obviously different thought processes in there.”
Gibbs declined to comment on the NFL’s response to the anthem debate and said he has focused on his business ventures and NASCAR team, Joe Gibbs Racing, in recent years rather than the latest developments in the league.
“You’ve got very highly qualified people [at the league],” Gibbs said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for a lot of those people running the show over there.”