To give you a sense of just how complicated the NFL’s recently enacted national anthem policy has become, consider this: Just weeks after the league issued a directive requiring players to stand for the anthem or risk fines and/or suspensions, the NFL backtracked after intense pressure from the players and criticism from President Donald Trump and basically called a truce in hopes of coming up with a better policy.
When was the last time something like that happened? Never.
NFL owners typically have been aggressive and often heavy-handed in imposing their will on players, and the idea of backing off a ruling even before it went into effect is a stunning development that underlies how thorny the issue continues to be. Based on what has happened the last two weeks, it has become clear that there will be no simple resolution to the problem.
In fact, it will continue to be a no-win situation for the NFL.
While owners have been encouraged to hold their fire when it comes to voicing their opinions about the anthem situation, recent comments from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Giants co-owner Steve Tisch and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross — as well as Trump — provide further indications that no policy will please everyone. Emotions will continue to be inflamed whenever a revision of the already-revised policy takes place.
With preseason games beginning soon, the league and the NFL Players Association are under pressure to come up with an alternative, but any move they make will be met with resistance. If they go back to the previous arrangement, critics of the players who took a knee or remained in the locker room will lambaste the league for kowtowing to the players. Chief among those critics will be Trump, who has derided the protests during the anthem since last September, when he suggested that players who didn’t stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner’’ should be suspended and even thrown out of the league altogether.
If they maintain the policy agreed to in May at the owners’ meetings in Atlanta, players who argued that they didn’t have a role in determining the policy will voice frustration similar to when the announcement was made by commissioner Roger Goodell. Keeping that policy also would be an indication that the involvement of the NFLPA had failed to make any meaningful changes to the protocol.
Even if the current policy is maintained, it’s possible that some owners will not abide by it. The policy that was announced in May said players can remain in the locker room if they believe they can’t participate in the anthem, but Jones made a stunning announcement Wednesday that all Cowboys will be required to stand on the sideline for the anthem. The Dolphins threatened suspensions of up to four games for any player who takes a knee during the anthem; after word got out about that possibility, Ross said the potential sanctions won’t necessarily be used.
That’s when the league and players association announced in a joint statement that the current policy has been placed on hold and that the two sides will engage in discussions aimed at a more palatable resolution.
Tisch joined Jets chairman Christopher Johnson in supporting the players’ right to protest. That will not sit well with Giants fans who made it known that they were unhappy with the handful of players who knelt for the anthem in 2017.
“We support our players,” Tisch told the Hollywood Reporter in an interview this month. “They are not going to be punished. There is not going to be any punitive action taking place against them.”
Shortly after the announcement of the new protocol at the May meetings, Johnson told Newsday that Jets players will not be fined if they decide to take a knee. “I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” he said. “If somebody [/DROPCAP][on the Jets] 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.”
In retrospect, the league might have been better served by simply leaving the issue alone, especially after owners reached agreement with a players’ coalition on directing money toward programs promoting social justice issues. By the end of last season, the anthem controversy had virtually ended.
But when the owners adopted the more aggressive policy in May, any expectations they had of tamping down the controversy were doused. Within hours of the announcement, players expressed deeply felt frustration at having been left out of the discussions. If the owners thought they would appease Trump, they were grievously mistaken; Trump ripped the new rules and suggested that remaining in the locker room for the anthem was worse than kneeling.
It was a stunning miscalculation by the league, and the fallout continues. Regardless of what plan ultimately is agreed upon, there is little hope that it will end the controversy.
Best-case scenario: The owners and the players come up with an anthem protocol both sides can live with. Anything short of a plan backed by the owners and players won’t work. The most expedient plan would be going back to the previous rules. Given how infrequent the protests had become by the end of last season, it’s reasonable to expect that would be the case again.