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New anthem policy will cause some backlash

The policy subjects teams to a fine if a player or any other team personnel do not show respect for the anthem

UPDATE: NFL owners have unanimously approved a new national anthem policy that requires players to stand if they are on the field during the performance but gives them the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer, it was announced Wednesday.

Earlier story below:

ATLANTA — Determined to put the focus back on the field, NFL owners held lengthy talks on Tuesday about the league’s national anthem policy, seeking a path forward regarding long-running protests that have shined a light on racial injustice.

During the first day of the league’s two-day spring meetings here, owners quickly moved to address the most divisive issue facing their league, which has rattled the NFL’s corporate partners. Although no agreement was reached, owners will continue discussions today in hopes of potentially making an announcement before the meetings are scheduled to conclude late Wednesday afternoon.

In the two seasons since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a movement by first sitting and then kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” commissioner Roger Goodell and his top lieutenants have had to juggle both the concerns of owners alarmed about potential long-term damage to their business and the public relations fallout from the perception that the league is in opposition to much of its workforce, which is almost 70 percent African-American.

Based on how outspoken Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones tiptoed around questions Tuesday about what the league will do next, it appeared the NFL’s top decision-makers still were struggling to come up with a plan. Jones, however, made this much clear: The feelings of the league’s fans are the owners’ primary concern.

Opponents of the protests have framed the players’ actions as being disrespectful to the military and police. With a nod to that group of fans, Jones emphasized that the NFL, in his opinion, should give them a reprieve from the nation’s polarizing politics.

“I’m not trying to diminish issues of our rights here, but the No. 1 thing is our fans and I know our fans want us to zero in on the game, zero in on football,” Jones said. “They want to come to the game and get away from a lot of the other issues that are out here.

“One thing, certainly from my standpoint, is I’m trying to figure out the very best way when someone thinks of the NFL, they think about who’s starting at quarterback and who’s gonna be coming out hot in the third quarter. We’ve got to make sure that whatever we decide here, it’s oriented toward what’s going on on the football field.”

To stop the protests, the easiest move for the NFL would be to change the wording in the game operations manual. Under the current rule, players are not required to stand for the anthem (in the NBA, players must stand).

One proposal, league sources have said for months, is to add wording that would prohibit teams from being on the field while the song is being performed, thereby removing players’ ability to protest in that forum. Another idea would be to simply require players to stand for the anthem as in the NBA. Many things were kicked around Tuesday, Jones acknowledged.

According to sources, other possibilities discussed included:

  • Allow each team to implement its own policy;
  • Clear the field of all football personnel while the anthem is played;
  • Instruct players who don’t want to stand to remain in the locker room while the anthem is played;
  • Impose penalties on teams and players who do not stand, including a 15-yard penalty and/or fines;
  • Add contract language that requires players to stand.

“Nobody came to this meeting with a blank,” Jones said. “Everybody is genuinely concerned and interested in how to move forward.”

Jones has threatened to bench any player who protests during the national anthem. He vowed to do so despite the fact that under league rules and U.S. labor law, NFL owners cannot discipline players for demonstrating during the anthem.

Jones indicated his position has somewhat softened.

“It’s not that easy,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of things that we’re trying to balance. We’ve got interest in every constituency that’s involved here and the issues that are involved. We recognize that with our visibility and the interest itself [in the protest movement], it’s taken a life of its own. All of that we have to measure. We get out and ask the world, ‘Don’t turn your head, look at us. Wait a minute. Look over here. Look at the NFL. Look at everything we’re doing.’ When we’ve got some issues we’ve got to work through, we’ve got to realize we’ve asked you to look.”

Liner Notes

ESPN.com contributed to this report.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.