ATLANTA — In a stark reversal from last year, the NFL on Wednesday approved a new policy prohibiting players from kneeling or showing any form of protest during the playing of the national anthem before games.
The policy, drafted and approved by the league’s owners without input from the NFL Players Association, states, “All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”
If a player is on the field but does not stand and show respect for the flag, the team will be fined by the league office. The policy also allows each team to devise its own work rules to punish players who do not stand.
However, the policy drops the requirement that all players must be on the sideline for the anthem. A player will not be punished if he chooses to remain in the locker room.
“We want people to be respectful to the national anthem, we want people to stand — that’s all personnel — and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “It’s something that is very sensitive and ensures we give players choices, but we do believe that that moment is an important moment.”
The policy represents a reversal from last year, when the NFL discouraged players from kneeling and protesting but still permitted it.
“We’re not forcing anyone to stand that doesn’t feel that that’s the way they feel about particular subjects,” Steelers chairman Art Rooney said. “But those that are on the field are going to be asked to stand.
“We listened to a lot of different viewpoints, and I think this policy attempts to come out in a place where we respected everybody’s point of view in this as best we could.”
The NFLPA said in a statement that the league went back on its word with this new policy.
“The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the NFL’s Management Council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our League,” the NFLPA statement read. “Our union will review the new ‘policy’ and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”
The NFL now joins the NBA in requiring players to stand for the anthem. Major League Baseball and the NHL do not have policies dictating player behavior during the anthem. Last year, one player from the Oakland Athletics knelt during the anthem. The player was Bruce Maxwell, and he is still with the Athletics.
The protests were initiated by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 to call attention, he said, to police brutality and racial injustice. The issue reached a boil last September when President Trump lashed out against the players and the NFL, leading to several dozen players taking a knee that weekend. But by the end of the season, only five or six players across the league were still kneeling, and the issue had mostly died down.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, has not been signed by any team, and he has filed a grievance against the NFL, alleging that teams have colluded against him.
As the owners debated the new policy this week at their quarterly meetings, they considered how Trump would react to whatever they decided.
“It’s kind of in the background, anticipating what he might tweet,” Packers president Mark Murphy said.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft was not available to comment after the policy was approved, but he expressed optimism about it Wednesday morning.
“I heard there’s a heightened awareness among ownership throughout the league,” Kraft said, “and I think players and owners understand what this means to our total business in trying to come together in a way that I hope is very positive.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday night, after several hours of debate on the policy, that the anthem protests took too much attention away from the product on the field.
“I’m not trying to diminish issues of rights here, but the No. 1 thing is our fans, and I know our fans want us to zero in on the game, zero in on football,” Jones said. “They want to come to the game and get away from a lot of the other issues that are out here.”
Goodell said the vote among the 32 owners was unanimous, but 49ers CEO Jed York abstained.
York said the new policy is unclear about what constitutes disrespecting the flag or protesting.
“I think we have to have a deeper conversation with our players,” York said. “I think there’s ambiguity in terms of what’s respectful and what’s disrespectful.
“One of the things we’ve decided is we’re not going to have concession sales during the national anthem. I don’t think we should be profiting if we’re going to put this type of attention and focus on the field and on the flag.”
Rooney said any sort of gesture — raising a fist, locking arms, etc. — will be viewed as a protest.
“We didn’t define exactly what they have to be doing, but I think everybody understands what it means to be respectful during the anthem,” Rooney said.
Also unclear is the type of punishment that teams can impose on players. The likeliest penalty is a fine, with limits established by the collective bargaining agreement.
“Clubs can set their own work rules, so there would have to be notice of this is what the rules are, and this is the consequence,” Murphy said.
Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said he will not punish his players for protests.
“If somebody takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players,” Johnson told Newsday. “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.”
At the last round of owners meetings in March, Johnson had said, “I just think that trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea.”
Former Patriot Chris Long, now with the Eagles, sharply criticized the new policy, saying it was motiviated by a “fear of a diminished bottom line’’ by the league and the owners.
“It’s also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation,’’ Long wrote on Twitter. “This is not patriotism.’’
“I’m someone who’s always looked at the anthem as a declaration of ideals, including the right to peaceful protest. Our league continues to fall short on this issue.’’
The NFLPA did not seem happy with the policy.
“Maybe this new rule proposal that is being voted on is a ‘compromise’ between the NFL office and club CEOs on various sides of the issue, but certainly not with player leadership; we weren’t there or part of the discussions,” NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said on Twitter.
While the NFL will now require players to stand respectfully or stay in the locker room, the league is working with players on some of the underlying issues behind their protests.
Last year, several players, including Patriots safety Devin McCourty, created a “Players Coalition” and worked with ownership on social justice initiatives. The NFL has earmarked about $90 million to donate to various causes, and passed a proposal this week calling for teams to match any contributions from players to causes made on the local level.
“Last year was difficult for all of us within the league, but one of the real positives that came out of it was the improved relationship between management and players,” Murphy said.