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How The NFL Lost Its Mind And Its Nerve On Anthem Protests

The NFL’s approach to players protesting racial injustice during the national anthem has moved to a whole new level of attempting to please everyone. In a matter of weeks, the league has gone from supporting the players, to co-opting and marketing their protests, to trying to squelch the demonstrations entirely, to … well, it’s hard to say, exactly. Just know that the NFL’s interest here has less to do with the nature of the player protests than with protecting the league’s image and bottom line. Same as it ever was.

The league wants the players to stand for the anthem, but it also doesn’t want to trample on their rights to free expression, even as it quietly changed its policy to allow for the punishment of anthem protestors, but please be aware it hasn’t actually punished anyone, never mind that the new policy can easily be weaponized to keep some players from demonstrating, but don’t you know the players are not actually required to do anything during the anthem, okay?


Confused? You should be. There’s no logic or consistency to what the NFL is doing, which is in keeping with its efforts to make certain issues a league problem while making others a team concern. As always, what matters most is public relations and keeping the owners happy. Expect that to be the guiding principle at next week’s league meeting in New York City, where the issue will be “front and center,” according to NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart.

The whiplash is probably best personified in Jerry Jones, who went from making sure the cameras caught him kneeling …

… to, just two weeks later, threatening to bench Cowboys who kneeled. Last Sunday he told reporters, “If we are disrespecting the flag then we won’t play. Period.” Jones credited President Donald Trump—whose recent obsession with the anthem protests is in keeping with his efforts at manufacturing and stoking divisive outrage—with alerting him to the language of the league’s game operations manual as it pertains to the anthem.


The game ops manual is not publicly available, as other NFL policies are. But the anthem language was provided to Deadspin by league spokesman Brian McCarthy. It says the following:

The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem.

During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.

However, as our own Diana Moskovitz discovered, the wording of that rule was changed sometime between 2014 and, well, Sunday.

The 2014 version of the game ops manual was included in court documents from the Tom Brady Ballghazi lawsuit, addressed the anthem this way:

As you can see, the wording went from “may result in disciplinary action from the League office” to “may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.” Which is an enormous difference! Those changes spell out specific punishments, and they remove the league—but not teams—as the sole arbiter of those punishments. But in both instances, the punishments refer specifically to a “failure to be on the field.” Which is an important distinction. More on that in a bit.

Jones’s declaration made Trump awfully happy:

But that’s when the league began dissembling. By Wednesday, Jones met with the Cowboys’ players in an attempt to appeal to their business sense, since the players get 48 cents for every dollar the league generates in revenue. The MMQB’s Albert Breer characterized the meeting this way:

Basically, Jones explained to Cowboys players how far the league has come as a money-making entity since he bought the team 28 years ago, and emphasized that more 90% of the audience driving that income never attends a single game, watching instead on TV. The president, Jones continued, is targeting that audience, and continuing the fight, as he sees it, will only make things worse.

And ESPN paraphrased a source who said Jones’s hard-line stance “was rooted in a desire to play the bad guy and deflect attention from the players.”

In a conference call on Tuesday, a transcript of which was provided to Deadspin by the NFL, Lockhart said, “I think the commissioner [Roger Goodell] and the owners do want the players to stand.” But in response to a direct question about whether the rules require players to stand, Lockhart said, “No, it doesn’t say they ‘must’ stand, it says the players ‘should’ stand.”

Asked to acknowledge whether the words “must” and “should” have different meanings, Lockhart replied, “I’d acknowledge that there are two different words there, and I’d expect that everyone on this call will interpret them the way they feel best.”

Lockhart went on to say the question of punishment was “a moot point” as it pertains to the Cowboys, since none of their players has protested during the anthem. But this elides the explicit threat Jones made to discipline any players who did. The threat is as pernicious as actively following through on any punishment—and in some cases, just as effective.


Lockhart also addressed the changes to the wording in the game ops manual by saying:

In 2015, we did a scrub of the manual for reasons that have nothing to do with the anthem. We tried to be uniform in what potential fines would be across about 25 to 26 issues, the anthem being one of them. It was not a particular effort having anything to do with the anthem. It was a way to provide a sense of uniformity among a variety of issues. If you look before 2015, there were 26 or 27 places where this language was added just to be uniform.

So: The NFL says it re-worked the wording of its anthem policy—in a document it does not make publicly available—the year before Colin Kaepernick began his protest. Lockhart also could not say whose decision it was to change the policy.


On Monday, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith issued a statement that said Goodell and Giants owner John Mara “assured our union leaders, in the presence of other owners, that they would respect the Constitutional rights of our members without retribution.” Smith’s statement said this assurance was given just last week. In his conference call, Lockhart said he would have to check to see if what Smith had said was true. And in a subsequent email to me, Lockhart essentially confirmed it. “I don’t know exactly who said it among the owners but De is right in saying we would not violate the constitutional rights of players,” Lockhart wrote.

Ah, but the league had still more twisting to do. Later Tuesday, Goodell sent a letter to all teams that wound up in the hands of Adam Schefter. In that letter, Goodell attempts to saw the baby in half:

Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.

Translation: The league wants players to stand, and it would prefer to co-opt the protest and make it marketable, not unlike how it has already done with breast cancer awareness and the military. Goodell even cuts to the chase in the next paragraph:

This would include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help to promote positive change in our country. We want to ensure that any work at the League level is consistent with the work that each club is doing in its own community, and that we dedicate a platform that can enable these initiatives to succeed.

Peter King thinks the league will “start by offering to devote a week or weeks—the way the NFL does with cancer causes (“Crucial Catch”) or the military (“Salute to Service”)—to fund and partner with players to highlight and sponsor work on civil rights causes in NFL communities.” And ESPN’s Jim Trotter laid out the following possibilities:

All of these proposals, while well-meaning, fail to address the fundamental nature of using the anthem as a vehicle for demonstrating: It gets people’s attention and makes people uncomfortable. Leadership councils and activism boot camps would largely keep the issues of racial injustice confined to spaces removed from the general public, while simultaneously giving the NFL the satisfaction of projecting that it’s doing something about the issue. Which is all the NFL really wants anyway.

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