ATLANTA — The NFL approved a revised policy on Wednesday that requires players on the field to stand during the national anthem, but Jets chairman Christopher Johnson told Newsday that his players are free to take a knee or perform some other protest without fear of repercussion from the team.
NFL owners voted 31-0 to ratify the measure, with only the San Francisco 49ers abstaining. The policy also allows players who don’t want to participate in the anthem ceremony to remain in the locker room until the song is finished.
San Francisco was where former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem throughout the 2016 season to draw attention to social injustice in the United States. Several other players also took a knee, sat or raised a fist during the anthem and set off a nationwide debate about whether a football game is the proper place to protest social issues.
The decision comes in the wake of criticism from many fans, as well as political figures, including President Donald Trump, directed at players who declined to stand during the anthem.
“Our objective as a league is that we want people to be respectful of the national anthem,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday at the NFL’s spring owners meetings. “We want people to stand and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion.”
If any player on the field does decide to kneel during the anthem, his team faces a fine by the NFL. The team can also impose a penalty on the player. Steelers owner Art Rooney II said a player raising his fist or otherwise demonstrating during the anthem would risk having his team fined. Individual clubs are also permitted to discipline players who protest during the anthem.
“I think putting the focus back on the game, making sure all personnel stand on the field and honor the flag and the moment [is important],” said Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, a member of the NFL’s social justice committee. “We’re looking forward to getting the focus back on football.”
Johnson, who said in March that “trying to forcibly get the players to shut up [about social issues or anthem protests] is a fantastically bad idea,” told Newsday on Wednesday that he will not penalize any of his players who choose to demonstrate during the anthem.
“I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” Johnson said. “If somebody [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.
“There are some big, complicated issues that 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.”
All the Jets players stood last season during the playing of the anthem, with players, coaches and Johnson interlocking arms during the song.
Jets defensive back Jamal Adams was happy with Johnson’s comments about not penalizing players who demonstrate during the anthem.
“A man of the players, Mr. Johnson!” Adams tweeted “Thank you for everything you do for us! First-Class gesture.”
Giants president and co-owner John Mara said he was satisfied with the modified rules.
“I’m pleased with the outcome,” Mara told Newsday after the meetings. He declined to comment further. Giants linebacker Olivier Vernon took a knee during the anthem through most of last season.
While the owners presented a united front on the anthem issue, the NFL Players Association reacted angrily to the new rules. The league had previously stated in its gameday guidelines that players “should stand” during the anthem, but did not require them to stand.
“The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new ‘policy,’ ” the NFLPA said in a statement Wednesday. “NFL players have shown their patriotism through their social activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.”
The union said it will “challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was not pleased with the new policy, reacting in a series of tweets.
“History has taught us that both patriotism and protest are like water; if the force is strong enough it cannot be suppressed,” Smith tweeted. “Today, the CEO’s of the NFL created a rule that people who hate autocracies should reject.”
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has protested during the anthem in the past by raising a fist, was part of meetings last October with Goodell, 11 team owners, a dozen current and former players, and NFLPA executives to discuss a range of social issues. Jenkins ripped the league’s new anthem policy in a social media post Wednesday.
“What NFL owners did today was thwart the players’ constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial inequality in our country,” Jenkins wrote. “Everyone loses when voices get stifled.”
Eagles teammate Chris Long, who has supported Jenkins during his anthem protest, was also critical of the league’s decision in a social media post.
“I’m someone who always looked at the anthem as a declaration of ideals, including the right to peaceful protest,” Long wrote. “Our league continues to fall short on this issue.”