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NFL had a chance to make a statement with new anthem policy — and it fumbled

The league could have showed support for its majority black workforce instead of opting for an ambiguous ‘solution’

ATLANTA – From the moment Colin Kaepernick demonstrated to shine a light on racial injustice, NFL owners faced a dilemma unlike any they had encountered in the game’s history. And almost two years later, they’re still clearly searching for answers after approving an utterly incoherent new national anthem policy.

Following months of discussions about the most divisive issue facing the league and then another three hours during meetings here, owners emerged with an ambiguous policy on Wednesday that likely will not completely satisfy fans offended by the protests, allay the concerns of the NFL’s corporate partners or avert potential future showdowns between owners and some in their workforce. The previous policy required players to be on the field for the anthem but dictated only that they “should” stand. That wording enabled dozens of players to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” without fear of facing disciplinary action.

Beginning in the 2018 season, the new policy requires players to stand if they are on the field during the performance, but it gives them the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer. Clubs will be subject to a fine if a player or any other member of an organization fails to show respect for the anthem. Players will no longer be allowed to sit or kneel, which dozens of players did the past two seasons after Kaepernick – the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has filed a grievance against the league alleging that owners have conspired to ruin his career – ignited a nationwide civil rights movement in sports. The league has empowered clubs to discipline players and other employees for violating the policy.

It’s unclear what was worse: that it took the NFL so long to come up with this split-the-baby nonsense, or that the game’s top decision-makers so proudly rolled it out during a news conference. Commissioner Roger Goodell, flanked by three owners and a team president who are members of the league’s social justice committee, spoke about the proper balance he believed the NFL achieved.

“We want people to be respectful of the national anthem,” Goodell said. “We want people to stand – that’s all personnel – and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That’s something we think we owe. [But] we were also very sensitive to give players choices.”

Actually, though, not really.

The league could have truly given players a choice by changing the language of the game operations manual to explicitly permit them to stand on the sidelines and demonstrate. By doing so, owners would have shown they totally support their workforce, which is almost 70 percent African-American. Such a bold move may even have prompted some of the NFL’s staunchest critics on social justice issues to re-evaluate their position about the nearly $90 million the league will spend to bankroll causes considered important to black communities, which has been roundly derided as nothing more than a payoff to persuade players to end demonstrations.
The fact that the commissioner’s office will fine teams if players violate the policy and then players can be disciplined on a team-by-team basis puts enormous pressure on players to toe the line. If you think players won’t face job security concerns if owners are being fined for their actions, then you’re not familiar with how things work in this universe. The league has no right to take a bow.

The policy’s overall lack of clarity is a head-shaker. Exactly how will the league define respect for the flag? Fine, everyone gets that kneeling and sitting is out now. But what about raised fists? If a player crossed his arms, would that be considered out of bounds? An action that’s considered disrespectful to one person may be fine with another. Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones acknowledged that the league “didn’t want to get into the details of that. But when you see it [something disrespectful], you’ll know it.”

With something as politically charged as a new policy intended to end protests during the national anthem, the devil is in the detail. Not surprisingly, the NFL Players Association issued a statement that it will review the policy and “challenge any aspect” that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement. The problem for the union, and ultimately for players who may choose to violate the policy, is that the league has great latitude with game operations. You know what’s not subject to collective bargaining? The NFL’s game operations manual.

Then there’s the crowd opposed to the protests, who view the players’ actions as being disrespectful to the military and police. They want to see all players stand at attention during the anthem. How will they react if many players often decide to remain in the locker room? That won’t be considered disrespectful? As for the league’s corporate partners, they’ll still have to contend with the potential backlash from customers offended that the league could have taken a much tougher stance and had all players stand as is required in the NBA. Although the NBA is considered a much more progressive league than the NFL in terms of diversity in coaching and team leadership, NBA owners determined that standing during the anthem is non-negotiable.

That’s the crazy thing about the NFL’s decision. It could have gone all-in with players who protested, gaining immeasurable credibility with those who – fairly – view the league as being way behind the times because of its awful hiring record. Or the NFL could have completely sided with fans infuriated by the protests, establishing that it, too, sees too much peril in being flexible about the anthem. The league, however, did neither with a policy that will surely help to keep the issue in the news, which, obviously, was not the intended goal.

Faced with a multifaceted, long-running problem, NFL owners worked hard to thread the needle. And in the process, they missed the mark yet again.

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