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What the NFL’s halted anthem policy means for the players, teams, and league

It’s Roger Goodell and the NFL that look the worst after the league decided to freeze its national anthem policy.

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The NFL’s national anthem policy lasted less than two months before it was shelved by the league in July. It’s still shelved, and on the very first Sunday morning of the 2018 regular season, we learned that it may be shelved until next year.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Sunday morning that the league is not expected to have a new policy this season.

In a joint statement with the NFLPA, the NFL announced that “no new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced” until the league and players’ association find an agreement regarding protests during the national anthem.

The policy said players had the option to stay in the locker room, but everyone on the field had to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.” Teams would be fined by the NFL for violations.

In an August statement, the NFL said that is still the league’s policy, but players and teams won’t be disciplined for violations.

In other words, the NFL is now back in the same exact place it’s been since Colin Kaepernick first started the trend of protesting police brutality and racial inequality by sitting during the national anthem in August 2016.

The freeze of the policy that was just enacted in May is an embarrassing result for the NFL, but likely in its best interest. For now, this is how it impacts all parties:

What does the policy freeze mean for NFL players?

When the national anthem policy was announced in May, many NFL players were furious.

“What NFL owners did today was thwart the players’ constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial inequality in our country,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said in a statement at the time. “Everyone loses when voices get stifled.”

It wasn’t going to stop all players, though. Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey promised he’d protest regardless if there was a punishment or not, and it’s likely other players would’ve followed suit.

But the removal of a policy that sought to keep protesting players out of sight is a win for those who want their voice heard without threat of punishment.

It doesn’t mean players can protest risk-free, though.

The biggest danger for players who kneel or otherwise demonstrate during the national anthem is that they’ll end up like Kaepernick or Eric Reid. The pair of former 49ers players filed collusion cases against the NFL after they were essentially iced out of the league.

Any other player who chooses to protest must weigh the possibility that it could jeopardize his chance of getting another NFL contract.

But aside from protesting players, the rescinded policy is also a win for the NFLPA, which needs to fight for every bit of power it can in the final years before a labor fight in 2021. Money will be the crux of the dispute, but issues like player punishments will also have a role in the next CBA negotiation.

So now players will get a seat at the table to discuss anthem protests after getting shut out of the conversation in May.

What does it mean for NFL teams?

In hindsight, the oddest thing about the national anthem policy is that it was created by team owners. That’s only weird because it would’ve been team owners getting punished most.

When Casey said he’d continue to protest during the national anthem, it meant the Titans were the ones about to be on the hook for fines from the league.

The policy said if any players or personnel demonstrated during the anthem, their teams would be fined by the NFL. Any punishment for players was to be decided by teams.

The owners rubber stamped a policy that was just going cost them money all because, as a few said, they wanted to turn the focus back to football. Not only did their anthem policy do the opposite of that, but they would have run into even more criticism if they chose to pass off that cost to the players.

The Miami Dolphins received backlash just for leaving the door open to the possibility of punishing players for protesting. So much so that team owner Stephen Ross released a statement clarifying they hadn’t made a decision regarding protest discipline.

Miami just happened to be the first team to have its discipline proposal leak — more teams potentially had a similar public relations disaster on their hands.

So in a roundabout way, teams and their owners were winners Thursday when the policy was pulled: They don’t have to pay if anyone on the team protests, and they don’t have to decide whether or not to punish players individually for doing so.

In other words, they were rescued from a trap they set up themselves.

What does it mean for the league?

The national anthem is still your problem, Roger Goodell.

The commissioner has been the poster child for the league’s two years of bumbling mishandling of the protests. The passage of a new policy in May was going to turn that responsibility over to team owners. It was going to be on the Jerry Joneses and Dan Snyders to rule with an iron fist — something that the more conservative owners were already doing anyway.

Jones confirmed as much when he spoke to reporters a week after the national anthem policy was pulled. He said that the Cowboys’ policy will be to “stand for the anthem, toe on the line.”

But ultimately, the burden is back on Goodell. It’s Goodell who’s in Donald Trump’s crosshairs, and it’s Goodell who is perceived nationally as the one who bungled this.

(To be clear: No, it isn’t in a player’s contract that they must stand at attention. And a full season suspension for kneeling would probably be a massive federal case that draws more negative attention for the NFL than DeflateGate.)

If the NFL hadn’t tried to appease Trump in the first place and hadn’t discussed the protests at all during league meetings this offseason, the conversation surrounding the national anthem likely would’ve continued its quiet decline. By the end of the 2017 season, just a few players were still demonstrating and the controversy surrounding their form of protest wasn’t a hot topic anymore.

Instead it’s very much back in the spotlight, and it’s Goodell and the NFL that look like the clowns for putting it there.

With the NFL and NFLPA discussing a resolution, there’s still a chance the league could step on yet another rake regarding the protests. But for now, there’s no policy in place and, in the long run, that’s good for everyone.