Back in May, the NFL succumbed to pressure from the Trump administration by announcing that teams would be fined if all of their players did not stand for the National Anthem, though they did include a “compromise” allowing players to remain in the locker room. But the organization didn’t mandate how the teams should penalize players who opted to take the field and a knee during the anthem, giving management the freedom to define these “work rules” themselves. Late yesterday, the NFL announced they were temporarily halting the league’s new anthem policy so they can negotiate terms with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), following reports that the Miami Dolphins were considering four-game suspensions for the “punishable offense” of taking a knee.
“The NFL and NFLPA, through recent discussions, have been working on a resolution to the anthem issue,” the groups said in a joint statement. “In order to allow this constructive dialogue to continue, we have come to a standstill agreement on the NFLPA’s grievance and on the NFL’s anthem policy. No new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks while these confidential discussions are ongoing.”
News of the Dolphins’ proposed four-game suspension began to spread on Thursday afternoon when the Associated Press obtained a copy of the team’s players’ rules, which classified improper “anthem conduct” (i.e. taking a knee rather than standing or remaining in the locker room) as “conduct detrimental to the team,” which, under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, meant that players could be suspended by up to four games. To be clear, the four-game punishment for “conduct detrimental to the team” – which also includes drug use or possession, gambling and breaking curfew – is a league-wide regulation, but up until now, it’s been up to the teams to decide whether anthem protests are punishable offenses, and if so, to classify the type of misconduct.
The report sparked immediate backlash, and with good reason. Four games is a long time in professional football – a third of a season – but more importantly, it’s a harsher penalty than many players have received for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. The Dolphins quickly released a statement defending the decision.
“The NFL required each team to submit their rules regarding the anthem before their players reported to training camp. We will address this issue once the season starts. All options are still open.”
But as Deadspin points out, that’s not entirely true – the league requires each team to submit their rulebook, including punishable conduct, before training camp, but there is no mandate requiring them to deem peaceful, silent protests against police brutality as an offense at all. For example, as noted by ESPN, the Baltimore Ravens have no such policy. This was a choice the Miami Dolphins made because, as a team source told Sports Illustrated, “they would have lost the right to insert it retroactively.” In other words, the team’s management sent a message to their players that they better not get any ideas, establishing their right to suspend them if they dared trigger a team violation by breaking the NFL’s anthem rule. The position stands in stark contrast to one held by the New York Jets acting owner, Christopher Johnson, who promised back in May that he would not penalize his players for taking a knee and would pay any penalties incurred by the team as a result.
The NFL should have been able to predict that their new half-assed anthem-protest policy would only lead to extreme variances in how each team handled the conduct of individual players. Yesterday’s backlash – and the realization that, with other teams heading to training camp and submitting their rulebooks, further controversy was in store – has forced the NFL’s hand. Until the league and the players association can come to an agreement, the policy will remain frozen and teams will not be fined if any of their players refuse to stand for the anthem.
But as Colin Kaepernick, the first player to take a knee and a vocal leader in the anthem-protest movement, knows all too well, that doesn’t mean players are truly free to protest without punishment. Kaepernick, who threw 16 touchdown passes in 2016 – his final season with the San Francisco 49ers – did not play all last season. He still has not been picked up by a team.