The NFL is truly, truly incredible sometimes. I remain in awe of its ability to court terrible press, and entirely unnecessarily. Remember in May, when, under pressure from Donald Trump, the league issued a “compromise” policy on players protesting systemic inequality during the playing of the national anthem? The policy was no compromise at all—it said, simply, we will fine you if you protest during the anthem, and your teams might too. And the league really thought that would be the end of it!
Showing the foresight of a four-year-old, the NFL somehow did not predict that Trump wouldn’t let up his attacks on the league. It somehow did not predict that the players’ union would formally challenge the policy, because it had not been involved in its drafting or issuance. It somehow did not predict that giving teams the right to punish players for protesting during the anthem would result in ... teams wielding their right to punish players for protesting during the anthem, and that this would piss a lot of people off.
On Thursday, as part of routine paperwork submitted to the league, the Miami Dolphins added “anthem protests” to their list of disciplinable offenses, subject to fines or suspensions as high as four games. That the schedule of potential punishments is not theirs, is instead from leaguewide regulations, did not and does not matter. What matters is that the Dolphins made the choice to consider peaceful protests against police brutality as “conduct detrimental to the team,” thereby making it a disciplinable offense in the first place.
Let us be clear here: They did not have to do this. They did not have to include anthem protests on this list at all. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that the Baltimore Ravens, who reported to camp a day earlier, have no such policy.
Here, Miami’s sputtering objections ring especially hollow. MMQB’s Conor Orr passes along this, from a team source:
There was no cemented national anthem policy, but they had to include any potential discipline in the rulebook before the team reported to training camp or else they would have lost the right to insert it retroactively. Putting it there amounted to a placeholder of sorts while they figured out the best way to address the situation.
Oh, we had to list anthem protests as “detrimental conduct” because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to later. If that’s the defense, it’s a shitty one. What if they just ... didn’t list it at all? The Ravens didn’t. The only possible reason to list it is to remind players that their bosses have the right to fine or suspend them for speaking up against racial injustice. And want to maintain the ability to actually do so.
So people like Albert Breer, who spent the afternoon whining that “everybody is overreacting” and that people are “taking the Dolphins thing the wrong way,” can get out of my face. No one thought the Dolphins were inventing the idea of suspending people for this. People were furious that a team would actually reserve the right to do so—and remember, the team listing anthem protests on the documents submitted yesterday was a choice, not a mandate.
So, of course, an uproar ensued (who could have guessed?!) and the NFL blinked. Almost exactly five hours after the Dolphins news first broke, the NFL and NFLPA released a joint statement saying the protest policy will be suspended for the time being. (It is very NFL to head off bad press only after the bad press has already begun.)
The league realized that, as teams report to camp this week and next, every single team will be submitting its list of what it considers “detrimental conduct,” and every single team would be scrutinized in turn for if its answer to the question of whether it wants to punish players for protesting is “no” or “maybe.” Because even “maybe” is telling. The players and fans hear loud and clear what “maybe” says.