National Football League owners approved a new policy Thursday aimed at addressing the firestorm over national anthem protests, permitting players to stay in the locker room during the "The Star-Spangled Banner" but requiring them to stand if they come to the field.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said the change was approved unanimously by the owners at their spring meeting in Atlanta, but it was met with immediate skepticism by the players' union. Owners say the protests have hurt attendance, ticket sales and TV ratings.
"We want people to be respectful of the national anthem. We want people to stand," Goodell said. "That's all personnel, and to make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That's something that we think we owe. We've been very sensitive on making sure that we give players choices, but we do believe that moment is an important moment and one that we are going to focus on."
In a sign that players were not part of the discussions, any violations of the policy would result in fines against the team — not the players.
The NFL Players Association said it will challenge any part of the new policy that violates the collective bargaining agreement.
The owners spent several hours addressing the contentious issue—which has reached all the way to the White House.
Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 as a quiet but powerful protest against police brutality and racial inequities in the justice system.
Other players took up the cause, and the gesture carried on during the 2017 season even after Kaepernick left the 49ers and failed to land a job with another team.
President Donald Trump turned the anthem protests into a campaign issue, saying the NFL should fire any player who takes a knee during "The Star-Spangled Banner." The NFL hasn't gone that far, but Kaepernick has yet to land another job and one of his former teammates and fellow protesters, safety Eric Reid, is also out of work.
Both have filed collusion grievances against the NFL.
While the owners touted the change as a compromise and noted it was approved unanimously, the players' union made it clear it was not part of the discussions.
"The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new 'policy,'" the NFLPA said in a statement. "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 statement added, "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 (co-owner of the New York Giants) about the principles, values and patriotism of our League."
The NFL was reportedly considering whether to assess a 15-yard penalty against any player who took a knee or conducted any other protest during the anthem.
Another possible option would have been to change up the pregame routine entirely, keeping teams in their respective locker rooms until after the anthem had played. That is the protocol long followed by college football, preventing anthem protests from being carried out on the field.
In the end, the owners sent a bit of a convoluted message — appeasing those who feel the national anthem must be treated with reverence, while allowing some sort of conduit for players to protest as long as they stay out of the public eye.
"We've spent a lot of time, not just at this meeting, but really over the last year discussing the issue of the anthem and working with our players to make sure we could get to a place where all the different viewpoints could be respected," said Art Rooney II, owner of the Pittburgh Steelers. "Obviously, we want to continue to work with our players and make sure they feel that their point of view has been respected. I think the fact that those who are not comfortable standing for the anthem have the right to stay off the field — so we're not forcing anybody to stand who doesn't feel that way about particular subjects — but those who are on the field are going to be asked to stand."
Goodell said the league met with countless players over the last year to get their input on the anthem controversy.
"We think that we've come up with a balanced process, procedure and policy that will allow those players who feel they can't stand for the anthem to stay in the locker room," the commissioner said. "There's no penalty for that, but we're going to encourage all of them to be on field. We'd like for all of them to be on the field and stand at attention."
Goodell was asked who would get to decide what actions would be considered disrespectful to the anthem or the U.S. flag.
"Well, I think the general public has a very strong view of what respect for the flag is and that moment," he said. "We have language in our policy that talks about that, standing attention, hats off and focused. And I think the general arbiter will the clubs and the league and we'll work with our players to get their viewpoint also."