‘Players Have the Power to Collectively Disrupt Their Bottom Line’ What Is the Appropriate Response to the NFL’s Protest Ban?

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NFL Protest Ban
Fans and critics are up in arms over a new NFL policy that forbids protests on the field. Agreed upon by the NFL owners, the policy requires players and personnel to stand for the national anthem, while also allowing players to remain in the locker room during the anthem. Players who do not comply face discipline. (Photo: knbr.com)

In a unanimous decision on the part of NFL team owners, the professional football league has approved a new policy requiring all players to stand during the singing of the national anthem or face a penalty. The policy, which applies to players who are on the field, also gives athletes the option to remain in the locker room. Otherwise, those players and personnel who choose to sit or kneel will face punishment. The now-discarded policy required that all players be present on the field during the anthem, and only suggested they stand.

“We want people to be respectful of the national anthem,” said commissioner Roger Goodell, wanting to dispel the notion that NFL players are unpatriotic due to the on-the-field protests. “We want people to stand — that’s all personnel — and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That’s something we think we owe. [But] we were also very sensitive to give players choices.”

Criticism of the NFL announcement has been broad and swift. Noting the protests never were about the flag or the military but rather police brutality and white supremacy, the ACLU decried the policy as “dangerous and un-American.”

The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) noted the league did not consult them on the decision and will review the policy and challenge any aspects that contradict their collective bargaining agreement. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, said people who hate autocracies should reject the NFL rule.

San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York abstained from the vote on the anthem policy, while Jets owner Christopher Johnson said he will pay the fines of any protesting team players. “I do not like imposing any club-specific rules. If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players,” Johnson said, as Newsday reported. Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest. There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”

Fans and critics alike took to social media to express their disapproval of the NFL policy, which some have characterized as league appeasement of racists and capitulation to Donald Trump — who personally attacked the now-blackballed Colin Kaepernick last year at a political rally, and subsequently condemned protesting athletes in general. Some are calling for a boycott of professional football, while others are calling out NFL hypocrisy, given players were not expected to stand until 2009, as part of a marketing strategy and the $53 million paid to the NFL by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Guard to play the anthem and stage elaborate military tributes.

Forner NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels said “forced patriotism is the opposite of freedom,” and noted the hypocrisy of the NFL in violating the U.S. Flag Code by incorporating the flag in official NFL jerseys it sells. “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery,” the code reads, adding, “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any way whatsoever.”

Calling the NFL protest ban one of the worst ideas in the league’s history, Dave Zirin in The Nation asserts that this latest chapter is all about labor rights — a collective bargaining agreement which enshrines the ability of players to protest. Zirin says the owners, who are scared of Trump yet think he is an idiot, do not know what they are doing. If they did know, they would meet with players and hear their concerns, and “would stop colluding against free agents Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and promise to cease this practice against any player who protests in the future,” he wrote. However, the owners will not go this route “because to do so would mean ceding power to the players and the union,” he said, adding: “This is about race and police violence. It is also about labor rights. As soon as we realize that, the question is not about the anthem. It’s about the oldest question of the labor movement, one that every fan should ask themselves: Which side are you on?”

Ultimately, the NFL’s decision to penalize protest on the field is all about the money, as Jay Michaelson argues in The Daily Beast. Given the NFL is a private corporation that can punish players who take a knee, he says the nonprofit trade association — with $13 billion in annual revenue, $1 billion in annual tax breaks and exemption from antitrust laws to keep the number of franchises low — should be taxed like a corporation. “That’s why this week’s action should be a wake-up call,” Michaelson wrote. “We need to stop treating the NFL like anything other than what it is: a for-profit association of billionaires (the average franchise value is $2.5 billion) that produces a product that hundreds of millions of Americans pay for.”

Enforcing the new NFL guidelines, as the Strategic Institute of Intersectional Policy notes, is a Black man named B. Todd Jones, who served as head of the Bureau of Firearms, Alcohol, and Tobacco (ATF) under President Obama.

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