NFL owners on Wednesday unanimously approved a new national anthem policy that requires players to stand on the sideline if they choose to be on the field while it's played, although they have the option to stay in the locker room.
This change will take place starting with the 2018 NFL season.
Teams now can fine players for failing to show respect for the anthem — that reportedly includes kneeling, which Colin Kaepernick started as a form of protest in the preseason of 2016. The new policy does allow teams to set their own policy for players who opt to be on the field for the anthem, although they cannot force players to take the field for the anthem.
"The policy adopted today was approved in concert with the NFL’s ongoing commitment to local communities and our country — one that is extraordinary in its scope, resources, and alignment with our players," a statement from league commissioner Roger Goodell read. "We are dedicated to continuing our collaboration with players to advance the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of our society."
Several players have opted to kneel during the anthem the past two seasons, or show other forms of protest or solidarity, to send their own messages as well. The hot-button issue angered some fans and team owners, and players felt disrespected for the attempts at quieting their freedom of speech on the matter.
Goodell's statement continued: "The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed. The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honored to work with our players to drive progress.
"It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic," Goodell said in the statement. "This is not and was never the case."
It's not clear how the new rule's "proper respect" will be defined, and whether players will find a way around this with another form of protest, or if they'll simply choose to remain in the locker room during the playing of the anthem.
The policy had read previously that players were required to be on the field during the anthem, but standing was not required — it merely was a suggestion. Other professional sports leagues, such as the NBA, require their players to stand during the anthem.
An idea that was floated on Monday — that players who fail to honor the flag or anthem could be subject to a 15-yard penalty — was scrapped. It was perhaps even floated by the league to its sources as a trail balloon or a shiny object to distract outrage to the policy they would eventually settle on.
But it's clear that whatever the NFL owners might internally be labeling a compromise also did not include any player involvement. The league maintains its new policy is an adjustment to the NFL's game operations manual and thus did not need to be collectively bargained before it was adjusted.
The NFLPA issued a statement immediately following the vote:
"The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new 'policy.' NFL players have shown their patriotism through their social activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.
"The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the NFL’s Management Council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our League.
"Our union will review the new 'policy' and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement."
But Goodell believes the league's policy change is geared toward focusing things back to football and away from any player protests.
"We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it," he said in the statement.