Nearly two years after then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the national anthem at a preseason game in August 2016, the NFL enacted a policy that banned that act.
Just two months later, that policy was frozen by the NFL after a grievance was filed by the NFLPA earlier in July.
Now, the NFL is back where it was at the start — disapproving of players who protest, but without a policy that forces them to stand.
But how did we get to this point? The path from Kaepernick’s first protest to the adoption and subsequent freezing of a new policy was a winding one:
Aug. 14, 2016 — Kaepernick sits during the national anthem
For the first two games of the 2016 preseason, Kaepernick sat with no fanfare. It wasn’t until the team’s third preseason game on Aug. 26 that Jennifer Lee Chan of Niners Nation tweeted a photo that showed Kaepernick on the bench. Pro Football Talk subsequently broke the story.
On Aug. 28, two days after the world took notice that Kaepernick sat, he explained the decision to sit to protest policy brutality and oppression of people of color:
“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
Sept. 1, 2016 — Kaepernick kneels with Eric Reid
After a meeting with former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick adjusted his demonstration from sitting on the bench during the national anthem to kneeling on the sideline.
“We were talking to him about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are,” Kaepernick said. “And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.”
In the preseason finale, Kaepernick and his teammate, Eric Reid, took a knee on the sideline. It quickly spread — Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane, Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, and even Megan Rapinoe of the National Women’s Soccer League knelt during the national anthem in the next week.
The list of players who joined Kaepernick quickly became a long one. While it dwindled as the season went on, there was still a group of players protesting by the time the season ended and a handful continued to do so into the 2017 season.
Kaepernick wasn’t among those players, though, as he became a free agent in March 2017 and has yet to be signed by a team. He would later go on to file a collusion grievance against the NFL, as did Reid, who became a free agent in 2018.
Sept. 22, 2017 — President Donald Trump responds to player protests
President Trump spoke negatively of the protests on several occasions, even bragging in March 2017 that Kaepernick was struggling to find a new team because owners were afraid he’d send “a nasty tweet.”
But Trump’s most scathing comments came at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama early in the 2017 season:
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in the country.”
He didn’t back down from the immediate backlash and even doubled down on Twitter:
If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
...our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
Sept. 24, 2017 — NFL players respond with more protests than ever
In response to Trump’s comments, there was a noticeable uptick in players kneeling. There were also many coordinated team responses, including entire teams staying in the locker room during the national anthem and teams standing on the sideline with linked arms.
Oct. 17, 2017 — NFL opts against anthem rule change
The NFL held a meeting between owners, players, and the NFLPA in October to discuss players kneeling during the national anthem and the social injustices they were aiming to bring light to.
A week prior to the meeting, ESPN leaked a letter the league sent to teams that said owners would discuss a possible rule change requiring players to stand for the national anthem at the meeting.
But no rule change was made — or even voted on — at the meeting. A joint statement from the NFL and NFLPA seemed to show an understanding between players and owners.
Joint NFL-NFLPA statement: pic.twitter.com/v4Swz4WhvW— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 17, 2017
Later, an in-depth report from ESPN about the meeting showed a divided owners room. Some owners — including Jerry Jones and Bob McNair, who infamously said they “can’t have the inmates running the prison” — were in favor of a mandate requiring players to stand during the anthem. Others, such as Jed York and Jeffrey Lurie, were more sympathetic to the players’ rights.
Feb. 1, 2018 — NFLPA says it doesn’t anticipate a rule against protests
Prior to Super Bowl 52 in February, the NFL Players Association was asked if it was preparing itself for the possibility that the NFL could pass a rule inhibiting player protests. The union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, said it wasn’t because they had been assured by the NFL that it wasn’t coming:
Both John Mara, who’s the head of the [NFL Management Council Executive Committee], and Roger Goodell, who’s obviously the commissioner of the National Football League, met with us and told us that they believed in the players’ right to protest. And I not only think that that was the right decision, but I also — and everybody should just pause for a second — actually think it was a really good thing for them to do and a good thing for them to say.
That appeared to be the truth when the NFL didn’t make any anthem policy changes at the annual league meeting in March. However, one high-ranking official told SB Nation’s Thomas George at the time that some owners had been trying to “moving the needle” toward getting rid of player protests during the national anthem.
May 23, 2018 — The NFL changes its anthem policy
The league passed a new policy regarding the national anthem that gives players the option to stay in the locker room. However, any player who comes out for the anthem must stand and “show respect” for the flag and the anthem. If a player chooses to demonstrate, then his team could be fined by the league. The team could then discipline the player.
The policy was created without consultation with players or the NFLPA, and likely created a bigger mess for the NFL than if the rules had been left alone.
July 19, 2018 — The NFL freezes its anthem policy
The Associated Press reported that anthem misconduct was on the Miami Dolphins’ list of actions that could be considered conduct detrimental — punishable by fines or a suspension as long as four games.
The Dolphins reportedly hadn’t decided yet if they would choose to discipline protesting players, but just a few hours after the AP report, the NFL and NFLPA released a joint statement announcing a freeze of the policy.
With no policy in place, the NFL has circled back to the same exact place it was when Kaepernick began his protest in August 2016.