The N.F.L. tried to straighten up its messy bed. Now it’s going to see how sleeping in it goes.
After nearly two years of hand-wringing, the league’s 32 owners decided on Wednesday to overhaul N.F.L. policy on protocol for the national anthem. At their two-day meeting in Atlanta, the owners said the league now would allow players to stay in the locker room during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” but said that teams would be fined if players “do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.” Then there is this hammer: those teams can then punish players however they see fit.
“It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of N.F.L. players were unpatriotic,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said explaining the need for the new policy. “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.”
Yet the rule change figures to go a long way toward pleasing no one. in a text message sent as the owners voted, George Atallah, the deputy executive director for the N.F.L. Players Association, made it clear the new rule was “not a compromise.”
“We were not consulted or included,” he wrote.
The league has set itself up to take criticism both from those who want it to require that all players stand for the national anthem, and from those who feel the league is trying to silence players who have chosen that moment to protest social injustice.
In a statement released after the vote, the N.F.L.P.A. said, “The vote by the N.F.L. club C.E.O.s today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the N.F.L.’s Management Council, John Mara, about the principles, values and patriotism of our league.”
The new protocol also may lead to a host of challenges and recriminations if players decide to test the limits of the rules, and their owners’ tolerance. Giving clubs the authority to punish players sets up a situation where players in Seattle and Philadelphia will have one set of workplace rules and those in Houston or Dallas will have another.
For a league that likes to talk about unity, this rules creates a dynamic where some owners may fine players for not standing for the anthem, while others may be viewed as havens where players can speak their minds.
The current rule, written about a decade ago, was not perfect. It required that players be on the sidelines during the playing of the anthem, and that they should — not must — stand.
Few knew the rule even existed until Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, took advantage of that language in 2016 when he chose to kneel during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality and other social injustice against African-Americans. When other players — almost all of them black — joined Kaepernick or staged their own silent protests, it created a rift that the owners have been trying to repair ever since.
The league tried to sidestep the issue through the 2016 season, hoping the news media would begin to ignore the handful of protesting players and the demonstrations would fade. By the start of the last season, the number of players taking part had shrunk to just a dozen or so. But when President Trump called out the owners for letting even those few players continue to protest and used an epithet to describe the players who continued to make a stand, everything changed.
For one Sunday last September, owners and executives stood arm-in-arm with the players. After that, protesting players began taking the blame for the decline in N.F.L. television ratings, the league’s most-valued barometer.
The league has only itself to blame. The N.F.L. has long used patriotism as a marketing tool. No big game would be complete without a military flyover or the unfurling of a flag as big as the field itself. Like many sports leagues, it wrapped itself even more tightly in the American flag after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
It has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Department of Defense to stage tributes to members of the military at games. The government also paid for on-field color guards and ceremonies where soldiers enlisted or re-enlisted in front of thousands of fans.
But it was not alone. Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and other sports leagues also took money to play host to patriotic displays. But the N.F.L. is by far the country’s most popular sport, and the one most closely associated with the military.
The anthem divide has caused a racial rift. About 70 percent of the league’s players are black, roughly the same percentage of its fans who are white. Many black fans have said they support the players who are protesting, while many white fans have said they are unpatriotic.
These divisions are even more apparent in certain geographic areas. The owners of teams in states like Texas, which leans conservative and has a large military presence, have been among the most vocal in arguing that all players need to stand. Owners in states in the Northeast, or in Seattle and San Francisco, which are more progressive, have expressed more tolerance.
The owners have tried to create a policy that allows for these differences. But in doing so, they may further highlight their problems. Coaches are always talking about the importance of players sticking together. Now they will be forced to decide whether to keep an entire team in the locker room to present a united front, or to let a handful of players stay in the locker room while their colleagues stand outside for the anthem.
Also, what of the league’s promise to donate millions of dollars to groups battling social injustice? The owners trumpeted that pledge late last year as a sign they were serious about supporting the players. Now they are telling the players that they could be fined for trying to highlight those same initiatives with their actions.
Penalizing teams whose players do not respect the anthem figures to be even more troublesome. Who decides the requisite level of respect? Will owners pressure their players to stand on the sidelines? Players are paying close attention to Kaepernick’s grievance, which has accused the owners of conspiring to keep him out of the league because of his protests.
Will owners only sign players who agree to stand for the anthem?
To be fair, it’s hard to envision the N.F.L. crafting a policy that satisfies everyone. But one that is likely to satisfy only the 32 owners hardly seems like an enlightened solution.