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The NFL’s national anthem policy is terrible for everyone, including itself

The NFL wants to keep their focus on the game. Wednesday’s implementation of a policy forcing players to stand for the anthem does the opposite.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On Wednesday, NFL owners voted to institute a new policy requiring players to stand for the national anthem if they are on the field for it, while also giving them the option to stay in the locker room during the song if they choose. It’s a policy with many holes in it — holes that will prove to be a breeding ground for other issues by its mere existence.

The policy says players who demonstrate during the anthem anyway may subject their teams to NFL fines. Each team can develop its own rules regarding players who do not stand during the anthem.

That might sound fine on the surface, but in reality the NFL may be making a bigger mess for itself than it intended. Player input apparently was not solicited in the process of making the policy, players can technically still protest during the anthem, and now the league is raising the question of what the anthem and “respect” for it means as opposed to putting focus back on its game.

In its release of the policy, the NFL called it a “compromise.” The so-called “compromise” was poorly executed for a number of reasons.

Players were not consulted on a decision

In deciding how to best handle an issue that clearly has two sides — players and owners — only one side got to sit at the table. This is despite the NFL saying in its own policy statement that the NFL has “reaffirmed their strong commitment to work alongside our players to strengthen our communities and advance social justice.”

The NFLPA released a statement saying they weren’t part of the policy negotiations on Wednesday shortly after the announcement, adding that it would challenge any aspect of the policy that was inconsistent with the CBA.

The policy is also contradictory to the league’s initiative with the Player’s Coalition to “join” them in improving communities and understanding their point of view. While the league worked with the coalition to come to an agreement on a commitment to social justice, it went rogue on a policy affecting the reason why that agreement came about in the first place.

The policy implemented Wednesday was not a joint effort, and if anything, showed that the NFL cares more about what people outside of the league consider to be “patriotic” compared to the issues that players are raising.

Nothing actually changes for the NFL, because players can still duck out

Assuming players on the field all stand for the anthem, there will almost certainly be a count kept on players who decide to stay in the locker room during the anthem. Those players will then be asked follow-up questions about the reasoning for the protest after the game, and the NFL hasn’t gotten rid of the conversation at hand.

The idea that players will still stand for the anthem while on the field is a big assumption, if the policy does indeed hold up (with the NFLPA possibly challenging aspects of it). Fines will be handed from the NFL to the teams, as opposed to directly to the individuals in violation.

That means teams can simply thumb their noses at the policy and absorb the fines. Jets owner and chairman Christopher Johnson has already told Newsday his team will do that.

“If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players,” he said. “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.”

There’s been no questioning why the anthem is important to the NFL game

Within all of the discussion surrounding the national anthem, and what should or should not be implemented, the NFL never seemed to ask itself whether or not it had any place in the game to begin with.

“The Star Spangled Banner” has nothing to do with sports. The sports played in the United States today were not invented when the music for the anthem was composed by John Stafford Smith in 1773, nor when Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics in 1814. So for the NFL to place such an emphasis on it and its importance in the game is misguided, for reasons the league itself described in announcing the new policy.

Goodell said the following in a statement on Wednesday, bolded for emphasis:

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.

Wednesday’s decision did the opposite, and has nothing to do with what goes on between the lines and during the 60 minutes of a football game. The idea that standing for the national anthem is the only way to “show respect” for the flag and the anthem is subjective. Players were not and are not protesting the flag or the anthem, but are rather sending a message for those without a platform.

It’s also hypocritical of the NFL to force what it believes to be patriotism upon players. In 2015, it was revealed that NFL teams had received more than $5 million from the Department of Defense for salutes and other advertising. For the NFL to receive that kind of coin, and then turn around and act as if it can set the standards for patriotism, is laughable.

All of this is a bigger mess than if the NFL had done nothing

The discussion surrounding the national anthem and demonstrations during it appeared to be dying down. Things came to a head when President Donald Trump called protesting players “sons of bitches” and Vice President Mike Pence staged a political stunt by leaving a game because of protesting players.

The height of the protests was during Week 3, and they continued strongly for about a month onward. But the topic faded as the season went on. Now that the controversy has been rekindled, even NFL owners are becoming uncomfortable with the league’s relationship with the anthem:

There’s also more that has yet to be discussed. Teams will be setting their own rules for their respective clubs, and what is “disrespect” for the anthem, per the NFL’s policy has yet to be defined.

Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing collusion case also comes into question. Creating a policy to keep protesting players off the field seems awfully counterproductive to trying to prove that they have not colluded to keep Kaepernick out of the NFL for, now, more than a year.

The NFL has chosen to enact compulsory patriotism in a space where it doesn’t need to exist (and that’s assuming patriotism can be compulsory anywhere without cheapening it). Wednesday’s policy not only hurts players and potentially puts teams and their owners in an awkward position of choosing between acquiescing the league or defending their employees, but it stokes a conversation the league has been trying — and failing — desperately to snuff.