By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA (San Francisco 49ers National Anthem Kneeling) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

May 23, 2018; New York Times

On Wednesday, the National Football League released their new policy regarding players who kneel on the field during the national anthem. The NFL ruled that players do not have to be on the field during the anthem, but if they choose to be on the field and do not stand for the anthem, their clubs will be fined.

The question of whether to kneel or stand arose in 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem to protest the killing of unarmed black people. NPQ has documented the controversy that has arisen since, including the NFL’s decision last year not to fire the players. The issue remains emotionally charged, as military veterans and football fans have supported both sides.

The new policy reads,

All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
  • The Game Operations Manual will be revised to remove the requirement that all players be on the field for the anthem.
  • Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the anthem has been performed.
  • A club will be fined by the League if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
  • Each club may develop its own work rules, consistent with the above principles, regarding its personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
  • The Commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.

People argue over whether the players should be allowed to kneel because the argument seems to pitch one cherished American value against another. Supporters say that the players are exercising their right to free speech, while detractors argue that choosing not to stand for the anthem is unpatriotic and disrespectful to veterans.

The players have made clear that the protests are not about veterans or patriotism, but a response to the “incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police,” as San Francisco 49er safety Eric Reid wrote in the New York Times. It happens on a football field because that’s the most effective public platform available to the protestors, who are almost all men of color and therefore afforded less of a voice on the political stage.

One Twitter user wrote, “This is white supremacy, period. A blatant and disgusting attempt to strip black athletes of their voice and reduce them to a number on a jersey—all while continuing to profit off of their bodies.”

The NFL players’ association released a statement clarifying that they were not consulted in the development of the new policy, but they will “challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”

But the people who will really decide the future of this issue are the fans.

The NFL’s new policy is unpopular and horrifying to many, but it doesn’t seem to be unconstitutional. The American Bar Association explained that the First Amendment prevents the government from infringing upon free speech, but citizens do not have the constitutional right to be employed, so employers have jurisdiction over political speech in the workplace.

If American citizens and football fans feel that speech ought to be fully protected on the football field, they will need to make this policy uncomfortable for the NFL. NPQ has written about the growing movement of boycotts meant to influence the behavior of for-profit companies. In this equation, the fans are the ones with the real power, because the NFL relies upon their dollars and their attention. If team owners seem to act with impunity, it’s because they believe in the loyalty of their fan base. Last year, NFL viewership declined by ten percent, but football games remained television’s most popular program.

Civil justice is not a new presence on the sporting field. As Steve Dubb pointed out just last year, people like John Carlos, Jackie Robinson, and Billie Jean King all used their platforms to advance a narrative of justice and inclusion. Dubb wrote, “Asking sports and politics to be separate from each other is a fool’s errand, because sporting events are in fact key sites where our collective identities are forged in the first place.”

The public image of the United States has taken a beating so far as justice and equality are concerned, perhaps deservedly so. The decision fans make about their collective values will be publicly visible, even if the protesting players are hidden in a locker room.—Erin Rubin