The NFL made no effort to disguise the bait and switch at the root of its national anthem policy, which was approved Wednesday by a near-unanimous vote of owners (49ers owner Jed York abstained). Just read commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement:
The giveaway is right there in the third and fourth paragraphs:
“It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.
“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed.”
This is how the NFL “compromises” with its players: by acknowledging there’s nothing unpatriotic about protesting racial injustice during the anthem, then passing a rule banning the protesting of racial injustice during the anthem.
The policy was lawyered just enough, taking care to note that clubs—not players—will be fined if anyone might dare to protest. Teams were also granted the opportunity to establish their own work rules on the matter. That there is no fine schedule or even a solid definition of how to “show respect” isn’t the point. Lest anyone forget who’s in charge, the final sentence of the policy serves as a reminder: “The Commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” This policy has has so much wiggle room, it manages to not actually clear anything up. It’s public relations, nothing more.
The NFLPA says it was never consulted on the development of the policy, and it pledged to “challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.” That the league acted unilaterally speaks to another one of its objectives here: The policy is a way for teams to avoid signing players who are protestors. Remember, ex-49ers safety Eric Reid has filed a grievance that accuses teams of avoiding him because of his history of protest. Owners know the argument that a team isn’t signing a player who will get them fined is more likely to fly with an arbitrator. This policy provides them with that cover.
At a press conference after the policy was approved, Goodell was surrounded by four owners/team presidents: Michael Bidwill of the Cardinals, Jimmy Haslam of the Browns, Mark Murphy of the Packers, and Art Rooney II of the Steelers. There was a lot of lip service paid to the league’s commitment to social justice. Back in October, the NFL let it be known it didn’t want to trample on players’ rights, and that it could actually hear the message the players were trying to impart. At Wednesday’s presser, however, the optics were unmistakable. Five old wealthy white men boasting about a partnership with a coalition of mostly black players that will subsume the players’ cause into something else for the league to market for itself in exchange for the players’ silence. “Looking forward to getting the focus back on football and getting back to football in 2018,” Bidwill said.
That’s what’s so disingenuous about the half-measure of allowing players who wish to protest to remain out of sight. The NFL could have gone back to its pre-2009 custom of keeping all team personnel off the field during the anthem. But that would have robbed the league of its red, white, and blue pre-game branding exercise. Flag and country must be respected, so long as they’re deployed as cynical props to help the NFL hawk its product.
Donald Trump’s greasy presence looms above all of this, of course. The protests during the anthem had been a thing for more than a year by last September, when Trump first used them as a cudgel. Few players were protesting, and barely anyone noticed. Now, this. “It’s kind of in the background, anticipating what he might tweet,” Murphy said, via the Boston Globe. All the anthem policy does is reinforce a longstanding truth about the NFL: The owners have no beliefs beyond profit.