The Washington Post
NFL could find protests persist under new policy
atlanta — After NFL owners voted Wednesday to enact a new national anthem policy for the 2018 season, they spoke about moving on from the contentiousness and controversy of last season. They talked about turning fans’ attention away from protests and politics and patriotism.
“I look forward to getting the focus back on football and getting back to football in 2018,” Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said.
But have owners and the league accomplished that? It remains to be seen. The policy that owners ratified on the final day of their two-day spring meeting does not quite guarantee the end of the players’ protest movement.
The policy gives players the option to remain in the locker room rather than be on the field for the anthem before games. Owners and the league said their expectation is that any player who opts to be on the sideline for the anthem will stand. The policy gives the league the right to fine a team if one of its players protests during the anthem.
But the issue of whether a player would be disciplined for protesting during the anthem is left to that player’s team to decide. Christopher Johnson, the chairman of the New York Jets, wasted no time making it clear that there will not necessarily be uniformity in the approaches taken by the 32 teams toward players’ protests.
He told Newsday on Wednesday that he would not discipline any Jets player who protests during the anthem and he would pay the league’s fine of the team if that happens.
It’s not clear whether any other teams will be as tolerant. Jed York, the chief executive of the San Francisco 49ers, told reporters Wednesday that he had abstained from the owners’ vote on the new anthem policy.
The 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have been particularly supportive in the past of their players’ right to protest. Meanwhile, the league has not specified how much a team will be fined if one of its players protests during the anthem.
The NFL Players Association announced almost immediately that it would study the policy and challenge any aspect of it that the union believes violates the sport’s collective bargaining agreement. DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, took to social media to lament the owners’ action.
“History has taught us that both patriotism and protest are like water; if the force is strong enough it cannot be suppressed,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “Today, the CEO’s of the NFL created a rule that people who hate autocracies should reject.
“Management has chosen to quash the same freedom of speech that protects someone who wants to salute the flag in an effort to prevent someone who does not wish to do so.
“The sad irony of this rule is that anyone who wants to express their patriotism is subject to the whim of a person who calls himself an ‘ Owner.’ I know that not all of the NFL CEO’s are for this and I know that true American patriots are not cheering today.”
Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins also was critical of the new policy.
“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 on Instagram. “Everyone loses when voices get stifled.
“While I disagree with this decision, I will not let it silence or stop me from fighting. The national conversation around race in America that NFL players forced over the past 2 years will persist as we continue to use our voices, our time and our money to create a more fair and just criminal justice system, end police brutality and foster better educational and economic opportunities for communities of color and those struggling in this country.
“For me, this has never been about taking a knee, raising a fist or anyone’s patriotism but doing what we can to effect real change for real people.”
Jenkins is a leader of the Players Coalition, the group with which the league negotiated last year to forge the social justice initiative by which the NFL and teams are providing funding for players’ community activism. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dealt directly with Jenkins and a few other players during those deliberations. It was a level of cooperation rarely seen in recent years between the league and players. So there is room to wonder now whether that has been undermined by the passage of the anthem policy.
“Last fall was difficult, I think, for all of us within the league,” Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy said. “But one of the real positives that came out of it was the improved relationship between management and the players. I think that’s been a real positive. We want that to continue as we move forward.”
The policy is the league’s attempt to get the NFL out of the middle of a divisive and combative public debate. Whether it works will be one of the major story lines of the 2018 season.