Why the NFL was forced to put its new anthem policy on hold before a single game was played

  • The NFL’s new national-anthem policy is now on hold after reports that the Miami Dolphins would classify protests as “conduct detrimental to the team.”
  • While the NFL’s goal was to end the conversation surrounding protests during the national anthem, its new policy only ensured that it would remain a storyline heading into the 2018 season.
  • The attempted rollout of the new anthem policy shows an astounding lack of foresight from NFL owners hoping to keep the focus on football.

In May, NFL owners announced a new policy designed to stop players from protesting during the national anthem. Under the new rules, teams would be fined if players and personnel “do not show appropriate respect for flag and anthem.”

But rather than a solution, the new policy was instead a vague and problematic half-measure that only ensured the conversation surrounding the protests carried on into the 2018 football year. It certainly continued into this week.

Detrimental conduct

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the Miami Dolphins had included a “Proper Anthem Conduct” section in a discipline document, classifying anthem protests among other violations defined as “conduct detrimental to the club,” all of which could lead to a paid or unpaid suspension, a fine, or both.

The news prompted the NFL and the NFL Players Association – which had already filed a grievance against the new policy – to release a joint statement saying the policy was on hold across the league until a more amicable solution could be found.

“No new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks while these confidential discussions are ongoing,” the statement said.

While the policy is sidelined, for now, the swift backlash to the AP report goes a long way toward explaining why.

The policy the owners came up with in May was designed to be a middle-ground deal – it wouldn’t be players who were directly punished by the NFL, but rather their teams, and the teams could dole out further discipline as they saw fit. Rather than quell the conversation surrounding the anthem, this “state’s rights” strategy only ensured that the conversation would continue – imagine the conversation that unfolded Thursday, 32 times over as each team determined for itself which potential penalties to introduce.

By passing responsibility for player discipline on to the teams, the league multiplied its problem, rather than solving it.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Before the Dolphins’ discipline document was made public, questions about the new national-anthem policy had already been raised Wednesday, when Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said he would continue his protests. Throughout the 2017 season, Casey had stood for the anthem with a raised fist in protest of, as he put it, “the way that the justice system treats minorities.” The recent player protests during the anthem, which critics view as inherently disrespectful, began as a way of protesting police brutality and racial injustice.

“I’m going to take my fine,” Casey told CNN while in London to promote the NFL’s overseas games. “It is what it is. I ain’t going to let them stop me from doing what I want to do. If they want to have these battles between players and organisations, this is the way it’s going to be.”

Casey’s potentially raised fist put the NFL in the precise position the league was trying to avoid – forced to litigate respect for the anthem and thus continuing what has been a painful conversation for the league. According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Steelers owner Art Rooney acknowledged that the new policy failed to clearly define whether raising a fist would be a violation of the new rule.

If one of the architects of the policy couldn’t give a straight answer on how it would be enforced, how could anyone who was trying to interpret it?

That means when Week 1 rolls around, the NFL could have to answer whether standing with a raised fist in protest of police brutality is considered “appropriate respect” for the anthem.

If the answer is no, the league would be compelled to dole out a fine, leading to a news cycle of questions to the team’s players, coaches, fans, and owner over whether it was deserved and what their recourse should be. But if the answer is yes, that such protest is acceptable, there’s a chance the protests’ most prominent critic, President Donald Trump, will see an opening to reignite what he has said he considers a “winning issue” for him and starts firing shots at the NFL yet again.

Congratulations, you played yourself

The NFL’s only goal in changing its anthem policy was to keep the focus on football and avoid the storm of critical attention that took over the league in 2017. There was no sense of patriotism or respect for the flag attached to its decision – it was a financial one, made by billionaire owners hoping to protect their most valuable asset from criticism that could negatively affect their bottom line.

The NFL’s best course of action this offseason would have been to do nothing, as the protests had already stopped being a primary issue for the league near the end of the season. The opportunity was there to just let the process play out. If any protests lingered, a canned response of “we support our players and their right to express themselves” could have been repeated until critics had no reason to ask the question anymore.

If owners were sure that action needed to be taken to keep a similar debate from overtaking the start of the 2018 season, that action needed to be decisive. They could have kept teams in the locker room for the anthem or canceled the practice of playing the anthem altogether.

They even could have ordered players to stand with one hand over their heart and the other on their side as the song played, which would at least give the league something to point to when handing out fines or suspensions or whatever sort of punishment it determined necessary.

The NFL wanted to make it so that the 2018 season was about football. Instead, the owners appeared to be hindered by groupthink and fumbled their way to a vague policy that only made it more certain that the issues they were trying to avoid would rise yet again.

Now they are paying the price.

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