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The NFL May Soon Require Players to Stand During the National Anthem

Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to all 32 teams saying that the league is ready to “move past” the pregame protests

Chargers owner Dean Spanos, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to all 32 teams Tuesday that indicated the league has “worked to develop a plan” to respond to players protesting during the national anthem. Goodell wrote that the league could “meet this challenge in a unified and positive way.”

“The current dispute over the National Anthem is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country,” the memo, which was published by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, read. Goodell indicated that the NFL would present its plan—the details of which were not revealed in the memo—to teams at next week’s league meeting, where owners could then review it.

The memo was leaked about an hour after CNBC reported that the NFL will consider “a rule change that would require players to stand for the national anthem.” Goodell’s memo seemed to hint at a rule like that, saying, “like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem.”

“The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues,” the memo continued. “We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”

In its game operations manual—a document that is not easily found online—the NFL has a policy in place that states that players “should stand at attention, face the flags, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking” while the anthem plays.

It’s unclear whether the current policy gives the NFL the authority to punish players for kneeling during the national anthem. NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart noted the wording of the policy—that it says players “should” stand rather than “must” stand—in a conference call with media members on Tuesday.

On Sunday, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, “If there's anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play.” Jones also said that teams “need consequences” in situations where players kneel during the anthem. Jones’s comments came after he reviewed the game operations manual, saying, “You know who reminded me about the game ops policy? Donald Trump.”

The president has frequently warred with the NFL over the national anthem protests, and his September comments that any “son of a bitch” who protests during the national anthem should be “fired” set off a wave of such protests in Week 3 that have continued since. Most recently, in what appeared to be a pre-planned stunt, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game after players on the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the anthem, igniting more debate over the Trump administration’s refusal to let the controversy go.

Tuesday morning, Trump asked on Twitter, “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?” However, the NFL gave up its tax-exempt status in 2015, meaning there are no “massive tax breaks” for the league or its teams.

Released a few hours after the president’s comments, Goodell’s memo indicates that the NFL is ready to “move past” the anthem protests. A rule change may try to put an end to players taking a knee, but some of the league’s most vocal activists, including Michael Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins, and Eric Reid, don’t appear likely to stop speaking out on issues of racial injustice and police brutality—the issues that inspired then–49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to kneel last year—anytime soon.