Yes, the NFL technically still has a national anthem policy that prohibits players from kneeling during the singing or playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games. But the rule is a pointless chapter in the league’s game operations manual.
The policy, amended in 2018 a couple years after Colin Kaepernick sparked league-wide protests against racial injustice and police brutality by sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem, has never been enforced.
That policy is under the microscope once again as the NFL begins its 2020 season. More police killings of unarmed Black people in recent months have prompted protests in the United States and globally, and the demonstrations have spilled into the sports world. NFL players were expected to protest these racial injustices, as well, once given back their gameday platform on the field in front of millions of viewers.
Which is good in the mind of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, at least based on his latest comments.
“Yes,” Goodell stated frankly when asked by former NFL player Emmanuel Acho whether he will support players who protest during the national anthem in 2020. Goodell recently appeared on Acho’s show called “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” in a two-part episode.
“We have never disciplined a single player for anything with the national anthem and in violation (of the policy),” Goodell continued. “And I don’t intend to. And I will support them.”
Of course, many would argue one notable player has been unofficially disciplined for protesting during the national anthem. Kaepernick, who started the trend in the NFL back in 2016, hasn’t played in the league since that season. The quarterback and former 49ers teammate Eric Reid even filed collusion grievances against the league, both of which were settled last year.
The NFL also has been inconsistent with its messaging on protests during the national anthem — hence the policy that was established but never enforced. Below is all you need to know about that policy and why it was immediately disregarded.
Kaepernick in 2016 began his protesting by sitting on the bench during the national anthem before 49ers preseason games. A few days after his protests were noticed and reported on by media, Kaepernick altered his method of demonstration based on a conversation with Nate Boyer. The former Seahawks player and Green Beret convinced Kaepernick that kneeling before the American flag rather than sitting on the bench would be a more respectful method of protest since “soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave.”
Regardless, sitting or kneeling, Kaepernick technically was violating the NFL’s policy on conduct during the national anthem before games.
The policy has since been amended (more on that below), but here is the old NFL rule Kaepernick violated when he began protesting more than four years ago:
“The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem.
“During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.”
Even though Kaepernick was apparently blackballed by the league following the 2016 season, it’s worth nothing that he was never fined or suspended by the NFL as a result of his protesting. But the league didn’t exactly support him.
“I don’t necessarily agree with what (Kaepernick) is doing,” Goodell said in his first public comments on NFL player protests. “I support our players when they want to see change in society, and we don’t live in a perfect society. On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that.”
Evidently, almost all of the NFL’s 32 team owners who vote on policy changes agreed with Goodell’s initial assessment. So after two seasons of players protesting during the national anthem with varying degrees of frequency, those NFL team owners in May of 2018 voted to amend the league’s national anthem policy.
Below is the league’s statement on the policy that technically remains in place today:
The policy adopted today was approved in concert with the NFL’s ongoing commitment to local communities and our country — one that is extraordinary in its scope, resources, and alignment with our players. We are dedicated to continuing our collaboration with players to advance the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of our society.
The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed. The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honored to work with our players to drive progress.
It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.
This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.
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. …
The 32 member clubs of the National Football League have reaffirmed their strong commitment to work alongside our players to strengthen our communities and advance social justice. The unique platform that we have created is unprecedented in its scope, and will provide extraordinary resources in support of programs to promote positive social change in our communities.
The membership also strongly believes that:
The six changes to the policy listed above were approved by all NFL team owners except Jed York of the 49ers, who said he abstained from voting due in part to “the lack of player involvement in the decision process.”
And that lack of player involvement was indeed an issue. Obviously, a policy that continued to try to eliminate peaceful protests on the field wasn’t going to fly with the players — especially since the NFL did not consult with the NFL Players Association prior to its amendment of the rule.
“Management has chosen to quash the same freedom of speech that protects someone who wants to salute the flag in an effort to prevent someone who does not wish to do so,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in the wake of the league’s policy tweak. “The sad irony of this rule is that anyone who wants to express their patriotism is subject to the whim of a person who calls himself an ‘Owner.’ I know that not all of the NFL CEO’s are for this and I know that true American patriots are not cheering today.”
Added then-Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins: “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. Everyone loses when voices get stifled.”
A couple of months later, after the players had filed a grievance against the league, the NFL and the NFLPA released a joint statement that the new policy (or at least the enforcement of it) would remain on hold “for the next several weeks” as the two sides discussed the matter.
About a month later, after players were seen protesting during the national anthem ahead of 2018 preseason games, the NFL officially announced it would not discipline those players in spite of the policy.
“The NFL has been engaged in constructive discussions with the NFL Players Association regarding the anthem and issues of equality and social justice that are of concern to many Americans,” the league said in a statement. “While those discussions continue, the NFL has agreed to delay implementing or enforcing any club work rules that could result in players being disciplined for their conduct during the performance of the anthem.
“Meanwhile, there has been no change in the NFL’s policy regarding the national anthem. The anthem will continue to be played before every game, and all player and non-player personnel on the field at that time are expected to stand during the presentation of the flag and performance of the anthem. Personnel who do not wish to do so can choose to remain in the locker room.”
The NFL has not announced any changes to its national anthem policy since 2018, and Goodell in his recent interview with Acho confirmed the league will continue to allow players to protest during the national anthem without penalty.
“Players have (taken knees during the national anthem),” Goodell said. “Players still do today. And they did last season, and we’ve never disciplined any of them. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
A few months ago, after Goodell released a video statement admitting the NFL was wrong for not listening to players earlier on the topic of racial injustice, league officials told CBS’ Jason La Canfora “that, yes, in fact, the NFL is out of the business of sanctioning or discouraging any player from taking a knee.”
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