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NFL owners reach a ‘compromise’ about the national anthem. How bad is it?

The NFL will allow players to skip the anthem — but potentially fine them for taking a knee if they’re on the field.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NFL players will be allowed to stay in the locker room during the national anthem in 2018 — but it comes with a caveat. The league is doing away with its policy that all players must be on the field for pregame renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and instituting a rule that could potentially fine teams whose athletes take the field for the anthem and then take a knee. Teams can also penalize their players and personnel if they demonstrate on the field.

The league is touting it as a compromise, but it appears to be a compromise between owners and the league’s main office only. It was reportedly passed without an official vote, although league officials knew what the majority consensus was.

Among those who didn’t agree were a couple owners who abstained from voting.

New York Jets chairman Christopher Johnson also seemed to disagree with the policy, telling Newsday that players on his team can protest without fear of punishment.

“I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” Johnson said. “If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players. Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest.

“There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”

It paints the picture of a disjointed relationship between executives, team owners, and their own employees. The owners failed to consult with players before approving the new rule, and that will earn some well-deserved pushback thanks to a policy that effectively mutes players aiming to protest during the national anthem.

What happened? Team owners and NFL bigwigs met at the annual spring league meeting to address several potential reforms, including one of the most talked-about aspects of the modern game: player protests. While there wasn’t much common ground between owners at the previous league meeting in March, the group was determined to push through reform regardless of its merits.

Now, it will be up to each individual team to decide whether or not to punish its employees for kneeling, but the league can also institute its own fines in a ruling that’s sure to create a power struggle in certain cases.

That doesn’t mean other potential resolutions weren’t discussed. Owners came up with potential changes that ranged from benign to confusing to game-affecting. The idea of allowing the home team to set anthem policy each week came up. As did a terrible plan that would have penalized teams 15 yards if a member of their roster took a knee for the anthem.

Those complicated reforms were shot down. Instead, teams will allow players the option to come out of the locker room for the national anthem or remain in the locker room. If players choose to take the field and kneel, franchises will be given the autonomy to discipline their athletes. That seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

Why have NFL owners been discussing it? Pregame protests have been a topic of debate since then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem beginning with the 2016 preseason.

His cause was to draw attention to the oppression of people of color and ongoing issues with police brutality. Not long after, several other players across the league began to join him.

The demonstrations kicked off a firestorm of debate revolving around not only the issues originally raised by Kaepernick, but whether these protests were an act of national disrespect or an extension of these players’ first amendment rights. They became a source for a potential league-wide blackballing of athletes, comments from the president himself, and at least one sponsor’s reason for declining TV ratings, even if former Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter’s math failed to pan out.

Kaepernick has since filed a grievance against NFL owners for collusion. The former Super Bowl starting quarterback has been unable to find another job since opting out of his contract with the 49ers in March 2017. He argues that league owners have collectively blackballed and denied him employment based on his peaceful political protest. The owners’ decision Wednesday to create a policy that shows a collective will to combat these protests only helps Kaepernick’s case.

Kaepernick’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, tweeted a link to the new policy Wednesday with the hashtag #nflcollusion. It was later retweeted by Kaepernick.

There has been pressure on the league to address the situation, but it became clear there was no easy answer. With sponsors and many players at opposite sides of the spectrum, officials decided to put off making a ruling with nearly four months to go before the 2018 season begins. Other options on the table were enforcing an “everyone stands” rule or just keeping players in the locker room for the anthem, like the league had before 2009.

What is the NFL saying about the policy? NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement Wednesday:

The policy adopted today was approved in concert with the NFL’s ongoing commitment to local communities and our country — one that is extraordinary in its scope, resources, and alignment with our players. We are dedicated to continuing our collaboration with players to advance the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of our society.

The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed. The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honored to work with our players to drive progress.

It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.

This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed.

We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it.

What exactly constitutes “disrespect” during the national anthem? NFL players who opted to kneel or demonstrate did so for an important cause, not to disrespect the flag. League owners’ inclusion of “respect” in the new policy will allow them to stretch its definition in whatever way helps them snuff out player protests.

What’s next? Owners who were the harshest critics of protestors — like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Bob McNair of the Houston Texans — will likely institute policies with punishments for players choosing to demonstrate. Other teams may provide players with more leeway.

But it really doesn’t matter, because kneeling and other forms of protest during the anthem will result in punishments for the team. That will leave players no choice but to stand if they choose to come out of the locker room for the national anthem.

Previously, the NFL game operations manual stated players “must be on the sideline” for the anthem:

The option to stay in the locker room during the national anthem was touted as a compromise, but players and the NFLPA were not consulted during that decision-making process.

The NFL’s new policy may effectively silence players who sought to kneel or otherwise demonstrate during the national anthem. In the hours after the policy was approved, a few players spoke about the news with reactions that ranged from acceptance to outrage:

Don’t expect the debate to go away.