Image Credits: AP Photo

With football preseason looming around the corner, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement saying that NFL “team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” The rule change comes after a long, controversial battle between the players, the NFL, and football enthusiasts. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained national attention in 2016 for refusing to stand during the National Anthem at the beginning of NFL games. Kaepernick described his behavior as protesting the “wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States.” His protests were applauded by some and criticized by others; however, 2016 was the last season that Kaepernick appeared in an NFL football game. He opted out of his contract with the 49ers and became a free agent during the 2017 league year. He has yet to get picked up by any other teams.

Despite Kaepernick’s departure, players from almost every NFL team continued to kneel during the National Anthem throughout the 2017 season. Players expressed a desire to protest racial injustice and show solidarity with fellow teammates. Backlash from the protests also continued as the NFL experienced a downturn in ratings. A CNN poll found that 49 percent of Americans believe players are doing the wrong thing by kneeling during the anthem while 43 percent believe they are doing the right thing. A separate Marist poll found that half of Americans say it is disrespectful to kneel during the anthem whereas 46 percent believes the athletes are exercising the freedoms that the anthem expresses. When asked whether players should be required to stand for the anthem, 49 percent of CNN poll respondents said yes and 47 percent said no. When polled by Marist, most Americans believe professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem, but 43 percent disagree. Although public opinion is closely divided, the general consensus is that players should not kneel for the anthem and should be required to stand.

The new policies laid out by the NFL are seemingly a direct response to public opinion and personal interest.

  1. If players are on the field while the anthem is being played, they will be required to stand.

  2. Players who do not wish to stand for the anthem will be allowed to stay in the locker room until after the anthem is performed.

  3. Teams will be fined by the NFL if their personnel are on the field and do not stand during the anthem.

  4. The NFL Commissioner will impose “appropriate discipline on league personnel” who do not stand and show respect for the flag while on the field.

One penalty being discussed was an automatic 15-yard penalty if a team’s player(s) refused to stand for the anthem, but no such announcement has been officially made by the NFL.

When looking at both sides of the issue, it is an undeniable fact that the NFL is a private organization. They can make rules or regulations as voted on by its members – namely, the 32 club owners. A new rule or rule change must be supported by 75 percent of owners before it can be adopted, which would be 24 yes votes out of 32 clubs. With this new policy, however, there was not quite an ‘official’ vote. Commissioner Roger Goodell simply conducted a straw poll of the owners where 31 supported the rule change and San Francisco 49ers’ CEO Jed York abstained. Assuming that the difference between an official vote and a straw poll is just semantics, this new policy was adopted with the support of nearly the entire league. Additionally, viewership of NFL games declined significantly for the second straight season in a row. Sports Illustrated says that NBC’s Sunday Night Football airings experienced the lowest viewership figure since 2008 when it averaged 16.6 million viewers. The downward trend is visible across all three NFL football nights:

Screen capture from Sport’s Illustrated

The figures don’t lie, so it is no surprise that the NFL would institute a policy to address public grievances. Loss of viewership spells trouble for ratings, revenue, and sponsors, but what about the players’ concerns? Some are worried that the new policy will infringe on the freedom of speech and expression of NFL personnel. NBC reported that Christopher Johnson, chief executive of the New York Jets, said the team would not pass along any fines to its players because “I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players.” Players are also speaking out against the new policy – Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive end Dawuane Smoot tweeted:

Philadelphia Eagles’ safety Malcolm Jenkins tweeted his thoughts on the rule change:

It makes sense that players would want to use their fame and publicity for a higher purpose. The average American does not have the ability to capture national attention and shed light on important issues every Sunday, Monday, or Thursday night. The new policy will limit players’ abilities to protest while “on the job.” It will force the players to be politically active outside of game time.

No matter where you stand on the issue, it’s hard to say that one voice takes precedent over the other. The NFL has a legitimate concern about profits and ratings while players have legitimate concerns about freedom of speech and political issues. Some football fans view the protests as disrespectful and unpatriotic while other fans encourage and admire the players who protest. It’s hard to say that anyone should be forced to stand for the national anthem in a country that is built on freedom and autonomy like America is. Only time will tell how serious the NFL is about enforcing the new policy or how creative players will get with their protests. Either way, the 2018 season will definitely be one to watch.