NFL owners have unanimously approved a new national anthem policy that requires players to stand if they are on the field during the performance but gives them the option to remain in the locker room without penalty if they prefer. The vote was made by team owners without involvement from the NFL Players Association. The policy subjects teams to a fine if a player or any other team personnel do not show respect for the anthem. That includes any attempt to sit or kneel, as dozens of players have done during the past two seasons to protest racial inequality and police brutality. Those teams also will have the option to fine any team personnel, including players, for the infraction.
The previous policy required players to be on the field for the anthem but only that they “should” stand. When former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in 2016 as a protest against racial injustice in the United States, the league had no rule it could use to prevent it. The movement grew with other players kneeling and drew increasing criticism with many who believed it was a sign of disrespect toward the flag and country. As the movement grew, the negative responses included suggestions that players who protest should be fired.
Others displayed their disapproval of players’ protests by leaving the stadium immediately after the protests or refusing to watch games at all. Owners had been divided on how to extricate the league from criticism. Some owners, including the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Houston Texans’ Bob McNair, wanted all players to stand. Others, such as the New York Jets’ Christopher Johnson, wanted to avoid any appearance of muzzling players. Some suggested clearing the field prior to the anthem but the idea was rejected by some owners who thought it would be interpreted as a mass protest or a sign of disrespect.
After spending months in discussions, and another three hours over two days at the leagues spring meetings, owners said they found a compromise that will end sitting or kneeling with an edict that stops short of requiring every player to stand. In a statement accompanying the announcement, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league wanted to eliminate criticism that suggested the protests were unpatriotic. “It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic,” Goodell said. “This is not and was never the case.”
Goodell added “All 32 clubs want to make sure that during the moment of the anthem and the flag,that that is a very important moment to all of us, as a league, as clubs, personally and to our country, and that’s a moment that we want to make sure is done in a very respectful fashion. And that, that was something that was very strongly held in the room.”
As for the man who started the movement, on March 3, 2017, Kaepernick officially opted out of his contract with the 49ers, becoming a free agent at the start of the 2017 league year. Kaepernick went unsigned through the offseason and 2017 training camps, leading to allegations that he was being blackballed because of his on-field political actions as opposed to his performance. Many players, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and former teammate Alex Smith, have stated that they believe his sporting ability is competitive in the NFL and they are incredulous of his prolonged unemployment. Kaepernick and former 49ers safety Eric Reid have both filed collusion cases against the league after failing to find jobs as free agents.