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NFL national anthem policy takes a mess and makes it bigger

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This isn’t going to solve anything, and it will probably make the situation worse

New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The NFL has made a messy situation even messier with it’s ill-conceived national anthem policy. This should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the league. This is what happens every time the league tries legislating things for the wrong reasons.

Social justice?

Domestic violence?

Player safety?

Shoot, even the catch rule?

Do you think the NFL actually really, truly cares deeply about any of those issues? That the league and its owners simply have a pure desire to do the right thing?

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

The league cares about covering its own large, valuable backside. It cares about image. It cares about lawsuits, or at least about avoiding them. It cares about TV ratings. It cares about being in the cross hairs of the White House. It cares about money, and anything that negatively impacts its ability to make even bigger gobs of it.

This is not meant to be a political discussion.

This is not about whether or not players are right or wrong for kneeling. I see that through the lens of my beliefs. You see it through the lens of yours. Same with the policy the owners put in place.

The only political comment I will make is to take the White House to task for saying that “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country” for choosing not to stand during the anthem.

This is a free country, a democracy. It is founded on free speech and on the right of citizens to disagree, and to voice that disagreement. Protest has often led to positive change in this country, and nothing good happens without people pushing for things they believe are wrong to be righted. We don’t have to like the form that protest takes, but in this country as long as it’s done peacefully citizens have the right to show their dissent.

This is really about the mess the NFL has made.

The NFL is running scared of lawsuits from former players. It is running scared that it will be seen as objectifying and not caring about women. It is running scared that its global empire has shown some cracks. It is now running scared of the White House turning the anthem issue into a political football it can use for its own benefit.

No one should blame the league for trying to do something. It’s what they did and how they did it that is the issue.

The NFL made an end run around the players, using adjustments to the league’s Game Operations Manual to implement the changes. SB Nation’s Louis Bien points out that the NFLPA should have seen this coming months ago, but that is really a whole different subject.

Speaking of the CBA, it expires in 2020. You can bet this is going to be an issue, and that it’s going to make hammering out a new agreement even more difficult.

NFL owners have instituted a policy that more or less begs players to stay inside rather than kneel or protest on the field during the anthem. They have made reference to a need to “show respect for the flag and the anthem,” without defining what that means. They have determined that teams, not players, will be fined and that teams can decide for themselves what to do when players come to the field and kneel or raise a fist during the anthem.

It’s “please don’t do it, but we have no idea how to handle it if you do protest.”

The reason players are protesting has gotten lost.

I do believe it’s important to recall why players are protesting. It’s not because they are anti-American or because they disrespect the military or the flag. It’s because they want injustices they see to get better.

Here is Olivier Vernon when protests began last season after inflammatory remarks from the White House:

“I had a lot of patience. I had a lot of patience from last year with what was going on,” Vernon said after the game. “I respect this nation, this country. I’m a first-generation American, my parents aren’t from this country. All these remarks just built up. Last night just hearing that just struck a chord.”

Vernon, who mentioned that his father is a retired law enforcement officer, had much more to say on the subject:

“What does it say as far at the First Amendment when you can show you feel non-violently when you have a platform to do it. No matter how much money you make, why not do it? Why not stand down with your brothers and represent something that’s bigger than the game of football.

“Something that we have in our nation that’s been going on a long time and I just felt it was a necessary thing to do.

“What’s fair is fair. If you can protest something that’s non-violent and make a stand for something what’s wrong with that?”

So, what happens when players DO protest?

Because, you know they will. The policy is pretty much a challenge, an invitation even, for them to do that.

You have to know that players like Vernon and Damon Harrison of the New York Giants will consider making on-field statements. What if they do? What if players from other teams do? It will be embarrassing for the league if owners from some teams simply swallow the fines and support the players, while others pass along the fines and impose other forms of discipline.

That, though, is what seems likely to happen.

New York Jets acting owner Christopher Johnson will simply write a check if any of his players protest:

“I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” Johnson said. “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. 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.”

Giants co-owner John Mara implied Thursday that he will be far less supportive:

“It’s an issue that is very divisive, (for) people on both sides of it,” Mara said. “And you have to take the players’ feelings and views into account, as well. So we’re hopeful of coming out of this with some sort of policy that works. I think certainly we all hope that our players stand for the anthem this year. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Then Mara said this: “We’ve been supportive of those in the past who have decided to protest, but I think we’ve gotten to a point now where it’s become such a divisive issue that I think it’s important that we come out of here with a policy that everybody can respect and adhere to.”

Sadly, it seems to me that all the NFL has really accomplished here is to give itself yet another black eye.