Before a game in October 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center,...

Before a game in October 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and San Francisco 49er teammates kneel during the national anthem to protest what he said was wrongdoing against African-Americans and minorities in the United States. Credit: Getty Images / Thearon W. Henderson

The NFL always has been averse to off-the-field controversy. But the league came up short Wednesday when it altered its national anthem policy to try to defuse an issue that dogged it last fall.

Some players knelt during the anthem as a social protest, following the lead of then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 began taking a knee to object to police brutality and racism. When dozens of players did the same last year, President Donald Trump catalyzed a nationwide debate with harsh attacks on the protesters.

Instead of requiring players to be on the field during the anthem, as had been the case, the new rule lets them stay in the locker room. But teams will be fined by the NFL if players come on the field and kneel. This solution of compulsory patriotism is discomforting, especially when football players have no real options to work elsewhere. It renders a verdict that the players who did kneel did something wrong.

Forcing players who want to protest to remain in their locker rooms so the NFL doesn’t lose sponsorships or fans isn’t a ringing endorsement of the freedom to dissent. It’s not clear the new rule would survive a First Amendment challenge. And what happens if a player on the field raises a clenched fist, as Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did so memorably in a 1968 medal ceremony?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell talked about being “respectful” of the anthem. But the peaceful protests were never disrespectful of the anthem, or the flag, but rather were objections to practices and policies. Nor were protesters unpatriotic, as Trump said. The new rule also reeks of cynicism. The NFL in December committed $90 million to social justice causes in concert with its players, the players it now has barred from protesting social justice causes.

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