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The NFL’s New National Anthem Policy Is Anything but a Compromise

With the league approving a rule change mandating that players on the field stand for the anthem, the NFL is going beyond just restricting player rights; it’s giving owners an avenue to punish those who kneel to protest racial injustice

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL has put forth its latest effort to prevent players from protesting racial injustice during the national anthem, and it marks perhaps the league’s most abhorrent step yet. On Wednesday, NFL owners approved a rule change mandating that all players and team personnel on the field “stand and show respect for the anthem,” the newest development in a story that began when Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid knelt during the anthem in 2016 as a demonstration to spur criminal justice reform and that became a national cacophony last September when President Donald Trump referred to any player who “disrespects our flag” as a “son of bitch.”

Following this rule’s passage, NFL players and staffers will have two options for each game: They can choose to remain in the locker room during the national anthem, a reversal of a rule implemented in 2009 mandating that players be on the field, or they can stand as the anthem is played. Put more simply: They can protest in the way that the league’s owners deem acceptable or face the consequences.

At a Wednesday press conference, commissioner Roger Goodell explained the revised policy, which you can read in full here, and which has already received the vice president’s stamp of approval. “If anyone is on the field and is disrespectful to the anthem or the flag, there will be a fine from the league against the team,” Goodell said. “The team will have its own work rule consistent with the overall policy and they will make their own decision about how to manage that from there at the club level.” Of course, this allows individual owners to pay the players’ fines themselves, which New York Jets chairman Christopher Johnson has already claimed he will do.

Prior to this week, teams had no explicit basis to fire players who kneel during the anthem, so the NFL invented one. Now, players who kneel during the anthem will cost their teams money, thereby giving owners all the pretense they need to fire (or decline to hire) those who “disrespect the flag.” While it may seem like a positive step that the league will assess fines against teams and not players, the reasoning behind that decision may be sinister; owners could have chosen this arrangement because it prevents players from appealing or filing grievances like they could for personal fines, as pointed out by Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer.

According to NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah, the union was not involved in discussions about the rule change.

Players like Kaepernick and Reid, who remain unsigned and are pursuing collusion grievances against the NFL, understood their employment could be at risk when they protested on behalf of causes they cared about. In the future, players won’t have to wonder if they’re risking punishment for protesting during the anthem; it’s actually written into the league’s rule book.

Goodell and the owners, who just ratified an $89 million donation to organizations focused on social justice reform, claimed that package, plus their new rule giving players the option to remain in the locker room rather than stand during the anthem, constitutes compromise. It does not. The owners acknowledge the issues that players are protesting are critical, but have chosen to take away the platform the players have used to draw attention to those causes. This line of thinking is as old as the civil rights movement.

In fact, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” though obviously on a different societal level. When religious leaders tried to convince him to stop protesting, King responded that the greatest obstacle blocking racial justice is, “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

In the NFL, there’s always next season.