For a year or so, the issue of player protests during the national anthem simmered along on the National Football League's back burner. Then, last Sept. 22, at an Alabama campaign rally for doomed U.S. Senate candidate Luther Strange, President Trump twisted the dial all the way up, saying he'd like to see an owner order any such protesting "son of a bitch" off the field, to be "fired." Trump also encouraged fans to boycott the league.
On Wednesday, NFL owners made it clear they'd taken enough heat. The league voted in a new anthem policy, which requires players and league personnel on the sidelines to stand. Anyone who doesn't wish to stand has the option of remaining in the locker room during the anthem, but if someone takes the field and protests, the league will fine that player's team an undisclosed amount. Teams also have been given the option of enacting their own additional anthem policies, and can issue fines to players.
Though NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the vote at the league spring meetings in Atlanta was unanimous, 49ers owner Jed York told reporters that he abstained, partly because players weren't involved in the process.
After stressing the league's "collaboration with players to advance the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of our society," Goodell said: "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 … We believe today's decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it."
Actually, protests dwindled last December after negotiations between the league and an NFL Players Coalition organized by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins produced an agreement for the NFL to fund about $90 million worth of social justice initiatives. But not everyone stopped protesting. Wednesday's action does not seem likely to signal the end of the matter.
"What NFL owners did today was thwart the players' constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial inequality in our country. Everyone loses when voices get stifled," Jenkins said Wednesday on Twitter.
"While I disagree with this decision, I will not let it silence me or stop me from fighting. The national conversation around race in America that NFL players forced over the past two years will persist as we continue to use our voices, our time and our money to create a more fair and just criminal justice system, end police brutality and foster better educational and economic opportunities for communities of color and those struggling in this country. For me, this has never been about taking a knee, raising a fist, or anyone's patriotism, but doing what we can to effect real chance for real people."
Jenkins' teammate Chris Long also released a statement:
"This is fear of a diminishing bottom line," he said on Twitter. "It's also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don't get it confused. These owners don't love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it. It also lets you, the fan, know where our league stands.
"I will continue to be committed to effecting change with my platform. I'm someone who's always looked at the anthem as a declaration of ideals, including the right to peaceful protest. Our league continues to fall short on this issue."
The NFL Players Association said it would review the policy and challenge "any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement."
"The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new 'policy,' " an NFLPA statement said. "NFL players have shown their patriotism through their social activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.
"The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by commissioner Roger Goodell and the chairman of the NFL's management council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our league."
The Eagles took the field Wednesday for the second day of organized team activities at the NovaCare Complex, but reporters had no access to the facility. Several Eagles players did not respond to requests for comment.
Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie, who presumably voted for the measure, issued a statement Wednesday night that lauded the players' aims and their commitment, but never mentioned the anthem policy, and certainly did not offer a rationale for his vote.
"I have always believed it is the responsibility of sports teams to be very proactive in our communities," Lurie said. "In this great country of ours, there are so many people who are hurting and marginalized, which is why I am proud of our players for continuously working to influence positive change. Their words and actions have demonstrated not only that they have a great deal of respect for our country, but also that they are committed to finding productive ways to fight social injustice, poverty and other societal issues that are important to all of us. We must continue to work together in creative and dynamic ways to make our communities stronger and better, with equal opportunities for all."
Asked if he had any thoughts on the matter, defensive end Brandon Graham texted "Nope." But right tackle Lane Johnson said: "Ultimately [the new policy] is taking the player's voice away. I think there will be some backlash from their decision."
In a nutshell, the problem with the league's new standards is this: Protesters, such as Jenkins, who raised his fist during the anthem until the agreement with the Players' Coalition was reached, said they chose the anthem as the background for their action because it is the only time fans and TV cameras are focused on them before the game. The protests, begun by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, were conceived to raise awareness of perceived racial injustice. It's hard to raise a lot of awareness in an empty locker room.
Also, protesters have pushed back hard against the notion that they were protesting the anthem itself – it was just the venue, it was not what they were taking issue with, they said. The league's new policy can be interpreted as an attempt to paint protesters as being opposed to the anthem. The league definitely is adopting Trump's view that protests during the anthem are inherently disrespectful. The six-point policy mentions the word "respect" four times.
Vice President Mike Pence tweeted out a CNN story that declared the NFL's move a victory for Trump, and Pence added the hashtag "winning."
Former Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith, now with Carolina, tweeted about the "respect" wording: " 'Appropriate respect for flag and anthem' implies that guys were being disrespectful towards it. Which is an opinion. Most people who believe that ignore the responses from the players and more importantly, why men chose to protest."
York said the 49ers won't sell concessions during the anthem. He told the Los Angeles Times: "I don't think we should be profiting if we're going to put this type of attention and focus on the field and on the flag."
New York Jets acting owner Christopher Johnson told Newsday: "There will be no club fines or any sort of repercussions" from protesting. "If the team gets fined, that's just something I'll have to bear."
Eagles players might have hoped for something like that from Lurie, who has been perceived as being sympathetic to their cause, but they didn't get it.