On Wednesday, NFL owners approved a new national anthem policy that aims to give individual teams the ability to decide on their own national anthem-related rules. In a statement issued by Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL's new national anthem policy will no longer require all players to be present on the field for the national anthem.
If a player does not want to stand for the anthem, they "may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the Anthem has been performed." However, the new policy appears to contain a penalty for players who protest the national anthem — the NFL can fine a club if its personnel are on the field but "do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem." The policy also states that Goodell "will impose appropriate discipline" on personnel who do not stand for the national anthem.
Although Goodell's statement aims to reaffirm the league's "strong commitment to work alongside our players to strengthen our communities and advance social justice," the league's apparent penalty for personnel who do not stand for the anthem has generated a significant amount of controversy. The NFL Players Association issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing league owners for not consulting the union before developing the new policy, and pledged to "challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement." Last fall, the NFLPA affirmed players' rights to "peacefully raise awareness" after Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a game.
The new policy comes after two seasons of national anthem protests by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and many other players in the league. In 2016, Kaepernick started sitting or kneeling during the national anthem as a silent protest for racial justice and against police brutality. He refused to stand during the anthem because he did not want to "show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."
Kaepernick is now a free agent — along with his former teammate, Eric Reid — but many of their fellow players carried on with these protests, which led NFL owners to draw up this new policy. Kaepernick and Reid have both filed collusion cases against the NFL, arguing that league owners had blackballed them.
While critics of the national anthem protests have applauded the NFL's new policy, many social media users have criticized the NFL for profiting off black athletes while simultaneously penalizing them. Activist Shaun King wondered whether the NFL would continue to "effectively ban Colin Kaepernick & Eric Reid" now that it has implemented a penalty for kneeling, while the Human Rights Campaign's Charlotte Clymer criticized the NFL for prioritizing "white male fragility." Clymer, a military veteran, slammed the NFL for imposing an effective ban on kneeling during the national anthem but not on players charged with violence against women.
The backlash did not stop there. Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels sarcastically suggested that the league stop selling concessions during "our sacred anthem," and journalist and activist Marc Lamont Hill argued that the "players wanted to assert their right to peaceful protest" while the league did not.
However, the new policy will likely be applauded by more conservative NFL fans — like Donald Trump, who for months has called on the league to implement a penalty for kneeling. Back in the fall, the NFL decided for the time being to allow players to protest without penalty, which Trump described as "total disrespect for our great country." Now that the league has developed a new national anthem policy, Trump and the league owners — who are predominantly conservative — will likely be more satisfied. However, the NFLPA has said that would review the new policy, and challenge it if necessary.