The NFL can’t get out of its own way when it comes to the national anthem.
Last year’s controversy about how players were sitting or kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest had waned, only to have the NFL devise a policy on how players should behave. By season’s end, protests were at a minimum. No one knelt during the playoffs, for example.
As an employer, the NFL has a right to expect and demand certain behaviors from its employees. Yes, the First Amendment protects the right to free speech, but we all understand that if we say or do certain things contrary to our employer’s policies, we are subject to being disciplined or fired.
In a nutshell, the NFL’s new policy says that any team personnel, including players, must “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem” if they’re on the field at that time. The previous policy said players “should” stand but did not require it.
Players who would prefer not to stand have the option to go to the locker room during the anthem without any discipline.
“If the NFL thinks its new national anthem policy is going to appease President Donald Trump—and really, that’s all this is about—then, well, that ought to work out about as well as having your lunch money stolen and believing that bringing extra cash the next day will solve the problem,” said Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel.
What’s less clear is how the NFL defines “showing respect” for the flag while on the field. One expects that linking arms and raising fists will be prohibited.
Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II said, “We didn’t define exactly what they have to be doing to be out there, but I think everyone understands what it means to be respectful toward the anthem.”
Ultimately, the team can only fine the team—not the player himself—for a protest. It’s unclear whether teams will handle player protests differently. A sympathetic owner could pay the league and decline to discipline the player.
The question is why this is so hard for the NFL compared to other leagues, like the NBA, for example. The NBA has a more restrictive rule requiring players, coaches and trainers to “stand and line up in a dignified posture” during the playing of the national anthem.
The NBA doesn’t take grief for this. ESPN staff writer Dan Graziano said, “Its players find ways to work on behalf of their causes and stand up for themselves against the kind of ‘shut up and dribble’ criticism that rattled the NFL’s owners into changing their anthem policy.”
So why is the NBA hailed as a bastion of social responsibility while the NFL comes under criticism for trying to push its players around? According to Graziano, “The answer has to do with sincerity, trust and authenticity of motivation.”
A big reason NBA players don’t feel the need to protest is that they know their league hears and shares many of their concerns.
Simply put, the athletes in the NBA have far more trust in its leadership compared to their counterparts in the NFL. The dilemma for the NFL is that building trust doesn’t happen overnight.
NFL players generally don’t trust the NFL and team owners. The system is built on non-guaranteed contracts, massive rosters and short career spans, so players feel disposable. Players who speak out fear unemployment.
It doesn’t help that the NFL never consulted its players’ union on the anthem rule change, making leadership appear to be dictatorial.
“The reason the NFL takes grief where the NBA doesn’t on this never had anything to do with a national anthem policy or lack thereof,” writes Graziano. “It has to do with off-the-field issues that run a lot deeper and will take a lot more time to fix. This whole mess might have put the NFL on that road, but it’ll be a long time before we find that out.”