NFL players will be allowed to stay in the locker room during the national anthem, but their teams will be fined by the league if they go onto the field and kneel, according to new rules adopted by owners Wednesday in an effort to defuse an issue that escalated last season into a national debate catalyzed by President Donald Trump.
Players had previously been required to be on the field for the anthem. Commissioner Roger Goodell said that owners voted unanimously to rescind that rule and to fine teams if their players are on the field or sidelines but do not “show respect for the flag and the anthem.”
At least one owner, Jed York of the San Francisco 49ers, said his team abstained in the vote.
“It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic,” Goodell said in a statement. “This is not and was never the case.”
Christopher Johnson, chairman and CEO of the New York Jets, said the team would not punish players who choose to kneel during the anthem, despite the cost.
“There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions,” Johnson told Newsday. “If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”
The new policy was adopted at the league’s spring meeting in Atlanta without involvement from the players’ union. It is unclear how individual players will respond to the new rules.
“Our union will review the new ‘policy’ and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement,” the union said in a statement.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling for the anthem in the 2016 season to protest racism and police brutality. He was soon joined by several teammates and dozens of other players around the NFL, continuing into last season.
While some fans applauded the protests, many others were critical, saying the players were disrespecting the country. Among them was Trump, who declared last September on Twitter, “Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!”
The protests were also discomfiting to largely conservative NFL owners. Kaepernick has filed a grievance saying he was blackballed by league owners; no team offered him a job after he left the 49ers. Another former 49ers player, safety Eric Reid, has done the same.
The new policy states that “a club will be fined by the league if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.” It does not elaborate whether other types of protests, like raised fists, would be considered a show of respect.
Steelers owner Art Rooney said after the vote that raising a fist or linking arms during the anthem, as some players have done, would be considered disrespectful.
Here is the new policy, as stated by the league:
— All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
— The Game Operations Manual will be revised to remove the requirement that all players be on the field for the anthem.
— Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the anthem has been performed.
— A club will be fined by the league if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
— Each club may develop its own work rules, consistent with the above principles, regarding its personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
— The commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.