The NFL passed a new national anthem policy Wednesday that was touted as a compromise, but really only seeks to mute players who protested for social justice before games.
The “compromise” given to players is that instead of kneeling, or otherwise protesting during the national anthem, they now have the option to stay in the locker room. If any players kneel or fail to “show respect” for the flag and the anthem, their team will be subject to fines from the league.
If there’s any ambiguity, it’s how teams will treat players who ignore the new policy.
Players who protest during the national anthem may be penalized by their team, depending on that club’s policy regarding the anthem.
Are NFL players going to protest anyway?
On-field protests during the national anthem are unlikely. At least, not on a weekly basis.
If there is an organized response to the new policy, it could look similar to the way players responded to President Donald Trump’s comments prior to Week 3 of the 2017 season.
At least a few players are already considering a different form of protest:
While admittedly a small sample size, some players are telling me they’re *considering* staying in locker room or making a different on-field gesture simply b/c they feel this new policy is a direct challenge to them. Before today, they hadn’t thought about demonstrating in ‘18.— Jim Trotter (@JimTrotter_NFL) May 23, 2018
What I'm hearing from players: Those who weren't planning demonstrations for next season are now back in the conversation, discussing ways to skirt to new rules "just to spite the NFL."— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) May 23, 2018
But a sustained weekly protest will be tough.
NFL players who protested during the anthem were already risking their job prior to the institution of the new policy. Colin Kaepernick — despite plenty of evidence he’s a capable starter worthy of a contract — has been a free agent for more than a year. Another prominent protestor, Eric Reid, also appears to be getting iced out of the NFL.
Both Kaepernick and Reid have filed collusion grievances against the NFL.
The threat of league-imposed fines gives NFL teams even more reason — and, now, justification — to avoid or part ways with players seeking to protest on the field.
“If the team says ‘this is what we’re doing,’ and ownership (does too), you either deal with it or you’re probably going to get cut,” Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster told the Associated Press. “You can fight the resistance on that one, but same as we can’t smoke marijuana because it’s illegal in certain states, or it’s legal in certain states, it’s the same issue. You have to adhere to the rules and if not, they’ll find a way to get you up out of there.”
If there are regular protests, it will likely be from players who have been assured they won’t be punished by their team for it. That list of teams may be short, but it will apparently include the New York Jets.
“I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” Jets chairman Chris Johnson told Newsday. “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.”
Earlier in the offseason, Johnson took a similar tone.
Here's what Johnson said in March about NFL potentially mandating players stand for anthem: "I don't agree with that, but I'm only one of 32 owners. So we'll see how that goes. I just think that trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea." https://t.co/SPHSfxW8xF— Darryl Slater (@DarrylSlater) May 23, 2018
“I think there’s so much more to it than a player standing, or a team employee standing,” York told ESPN. “We want to take a broader approach of, for us personally, we’re gonna close concession sales during the national anthem. I don’t think that we should profit if we’re going to ask people to be respectful.”
Most owners will probably aim to keep player protests out of sight.
The new CBA negotiations just got even more complicated
The NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA was struck in August 2011 after a player lockout that lasted more than four months. It will expire in 2021, setting up another big labor duel after the 2020 season.
While the 2011 negotiation revolved around the profit sharing and a rookie wage scale, the 2021 battle will have other issues at stake.
A national anthem policy that silences the voices of players without consultation of the NFLPA is another log on the flame.
The NFLPA has warned players to save their money for a lengthy labor dispute in 2021. The NFL’s “compromise” that mutes players only hammers that point home, especially when the owners didn’t officially vote on the new policy, as reported by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham.
Is that the end of player protests, then?
Perhaps on-field protests during the national anthem will be curbed, but don’t expect all forms of player protest to disappear, or for players to quiet down.
A number of the league’s most outspoken players reacted to the news with outrage and resolve to continue to voice their message.
Doug Baldwin on @710ESPNSeattle on the NFL Anthem rules today:— Jessamyn McIntyre (@JessamynMcIntyr) May 23, 2018
"I'm not surprised - the NFL cares about one thing and that's the NFL - that's the bottom line...I'm not surprised, I'm disappointed."
Says he's been in contact with Roger Goodell, calls the rule tone deaf.
“Appropriate respect for flag and anthem” implies that guys were being disrespectful towards it. Which is an opinion. Most people who believe that ignore the responses from the players and more importantly why men chose to protest. https://t.co/j7nyw2Lkai— Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) May 23, 2018
Steelers corner Artie Burns on protesting players having to stay in the locker room during the anthem or face discipline/team fines: “You talk about bullying, man. That’s bullying.” pic.twitter.com/kTAeXqd9tp— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) May 24, 2018
“There are still plenty of ways to use our voice and platform,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told USA Today. “But to try to quiet the voices in such a forceful way will be sure to have mixed reviews.”
Attempting to quiet players may also reinvigorate a movement that had mostly tailed off. By the end of the 2017 season, just a few players were still demonstrating in some fashion during the national anthem. And were mostly doing so in anonymity.
One of the reasons for the policy was that owners reportedly didn’t want Trump continuing to use the NFL as a weapon on the campaign trail this fall. Just two days prior to the addition of the policy, Trump praised NASCAR for its treatment of the national anthem.
But the new policy — which is already being celebrated by the White House and which Trump applauded on Fox & Friends — could help Trump in a different way: he’ll likely use it as proof of a personal victory over the NFL.
With NFL owners agreeing on a policy that quiets player voices, there may be more divisiveness and a sense that it’s a players vs. owners battle.
Even if there aren’t protests during the national anthem, don’t expect players to take the new policy sitting down.