Patriots players hold hands and kneel during the national anthem...

Patriots players hold hands and kneel during the national anthem at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 24, 2017. Credit: John Cetrino / EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

ATLANTA -- If the NFL expected Wednesday’s approval of sweeping modifications to its national anthem protocol to end the controversy, the league miscalculated.


Rather than tamp down the debate, it inflamed emotions. After a period of relative calm about the handful of players protesting, the league’s insistence that they stand for the song has created more debate and controversy.

Even among the owners who enacted the rules, there is disagreement about their overall tenor. The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Texans’ Bob McNair surely believe they’ve won by requiring players to stand. Yet Jets chairman Christopher Johnson, who has ingratiated himself among his players because of his support for their concerns about social justice, said he will not stand in the way of those who feel the need to protest.

Johnson deftly handled the issue last year with open, honest dialogue, and a teamwide decision had players, coaches and Johnson lock arms while standing for the anthem. It was a heartfelt gesture, underscored by Johnson’s active participation in the players’ push for judicial reform and other concerns.

The Jets stood, but they also stood for something.

There was little blowback among Jets fans because the players did stand. But Johnson’s outspoken support, which he outlined Wednesday to Newsday, of their right to protest surely will not sit well with fans who think they should not bring any agenda other than football onto the field. If they take a knee and are fined by the league, Johnson will hand over the money and take no further action, even though he is entitled to do so under the guidelines.

“I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” Johnson said. “If somebody takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players. Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest. There are some big, complicated issues we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t.

“There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”

Sports and news channels and talk radio are full of anthem chatter, with players and owners in the middle of this game of political football. Once again, it has reached the highest levels of power. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted Wednesday “#Winning” and that the owners’ decision represented a “stunning victory for President Trump.” The message was retweeted by Trump’s @POTUS account.

(Interestingly, Christopher Johnson’s older brother, Jets owner Woody Johnson, is a Trump supporter who was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He was forced to relinquish control of the team to Christopher until the ambassadorship ends. Woody Johnson has not commented on the anthem issue.)

Christopher Johnson, admittedly conflicted, ultimately voted for the new anthem rules, partly because he felt he could assuage his own concerns about not restricting his players. The Jets appreciate his support, and safety Jamal Adams was especially gratified to read about Johnson’s comments to Newsday.

“A man of the players, Mr. Johnson!” Adams wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “Thank you for everything you do for us! First-Class gesture.”

Many fans — and not just Jets fans — are applauding Johnson’s stance.

“I hate the Jets,” one follower tweeted. “But damn do I respect them.”

“If NFL owners want the anthem issue to go away, take a page out of Mr. Johnson’s book,” another tweeted.

But those comments stand in stark contrast to an email from a friend, who forwarded a note from an acquaintance railing at Johnson’s remarks and vowing never to attend another Jets game.

Surely many others feel the same.

This familiar cycle has played out since then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began protesting during the anthem in 2016. There are intense feelings on both sides, and little has changed since then. Wednesday’s announcement made certain the issue will not go away anytime soon.

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