National Football League (NFL) team owners were widely rebuked Wednesday for a new policy to penalize professional football teams whose players exercise their right to protest after athletes across the league locked arms, raised fists, or knelt during the national anthem the past two seasons to support a movement against racial injustice started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
"If NFL owners actually knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be having these Hamlet-esque meetings about how to clamp down on protest and would instead merely assert the basic truth: that players hold the right to protest, and fans should respect that right."
—Dave Zirin, The Nation
"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," according to policy statement released by the NFL on Wednesday.
Commissioner Roger Goodell added that "personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed."
No NFL owners have come out in opposition to the move, but 49ers owner Jed York reportedly abstained from voting for the new policy, which also allows individual teams to craft additional rules, and was strongly condemned by football fans and civil libertarians alike.
The NFL players’ protests have never been about the military or the flag. They’re about police brutality and white supremacy. Failing to protest injustice in America is not patriotic, it’s dangerous. #TakeAKnee
— ACLU (@ACLU) May 23, 2018
So the @NFL will fine teams who have players not stand during the forced nationalism portion of the game. Where does the money go? Causes to help Injustice or Roger's pocket?
— Zac Coffman-Magaha (@ZacCoffman) May 23, 2018
— Tim McTyer (@timmctyer) May 23, 2018
Fuck the NFL. https://t.co/DpAQCXPL4C
— Terrell J. Starr (@Russian_Starr) May 23, 2018
My favorite thing about the new NFL national anthem policy is that
there's no good reason to even play the national anthem before a sporting event between two teams owned by billionaires.
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— Miriti Murungi (@NutmegRadio) May 23, 2018
The policy announcement came after Sports Illustrated reported that at a private meeting on Tuesday, owners who oppose the player protests proposed issuing 15-yard penalties against teams whose players kneel. Critics called that plan "utterly absurd," "industrial-strength stupid," and "PATHETIC."
The Nation's sports editor, Dave Zirin, called it "among the worst ideas in the history of the National Football League," writing Wednesday that "one can only imagine an official saying, 'Exercising of constitutional rights. On the kicking team. 15 yard penalty. First down.'"
In addition to a First Amendment right to peacefullly protest, as Zirin explained, "NFL players have had the space to protest during the anthem not out of the noblesse oblige of ownership but because it is enshrined in the collective bargaining agreement with the union."
George Atallah of the league's players association, NFLPA, had said on Twitter that the labor group was not a part of the Tuesday discussion, and after the official announcement on Wednesday, the NFLPA issued a statement reiterating that "the NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new 'policy.'"
In its statement, the NFPLA also praised NFL players for showing "their patriotism through...protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about," and vowed to "review the new 'policy' and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement."
"The idea that some owners would even propose this without speaking to the union is a sign of how drastically out of touch this group of aged billionaires are from the players in their league," Zirin concluded. "If NFL owners actually knew what they were doing, they wouldn't be having these Hamlet-esque meetings about how to clamp down on protest and would instead merely assert the basic truth: that players hold the right to protest, and fans should respect that right."
This post has been updated to reflect that the 49ers owner abstained from voting for the policy, according to ESPN, and to include comments from the ACLU.