The Steelers, Seahawks, and Titans took a different approach to their games on Sunday when all three teams chose to remain in their locker rooms rather than be on the field to participate in the national anthem.
The rationale behind the Steelers’ decision, according to coach Mike Tomlin, was that it removed the politics from the situation and didn’t force players to pick sides. The Titans did not issue a statement, while the Seahawks said the following:
What may complicate matters is that players may be required to be on the field for the anthem. An NFL representative spoke to Mark Maske of The Washington Post and said that there “may” be discipline:
Again, NFL rules require all players to be on sideline for anthem, say there "may" be discipline for violation of that.— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) September 24, 2017
Despite this claim, it does not appear that there is anything in the NFL rulebook requiring players to be on the field for the national anthem. Article 1, Section 2 of “Game Timing” only requires the kickoff is not delayed and the coin toss is on schedule — but says nothing of when players are required to be on the field outside of having sufficient time to warm up.
There’s a chance the representative of the NFL speaking to Maske was referring to Article 8, which deals with personal messages pregame. This broad section gives the NFL tremendous latitude to fine players as it sees fit and take additional action (including suspension) after addressing a player’s team. However, there is no mention of any requirement on where players should be during the anthem or how they should act, outside of a potentially broad use of Article 8.
President Trump tweeted during the games to say he supported players standing with their arms locked, but not those who kneeled during the anthem:
Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Despite claims over what is or isn’t “acceptable,” none of them holds weight. Potential disciplinary action over how players act during the anthem would need to be in place under the collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, and to make matters more complicated, several states that have teams also extend first-amendment protection to employees of private businesses while at work.
The NFL has shown no willingness to snuff players’ rights to freedom of speech, and there’s no evidence to show that players have to be present for the anthem. Until the NFL says otherwise, we could continue to see teams choosing not to participate in the pregame anthem.