NFL Punts On Anthem

On Wednesday (23 May), at their annual spring meeting in Atlanta, NFL owners voted to require players and team personnel on the field when the national anthem is played to stand during the performance; players unwilling to do so will be free to remain in the locker room, or off the field and out of sight, but violations will be punished by fining the team, which can fine individual violators in turn; whereas the previous policy had required the presence of all players on the field for the playing of the anthem and specified that they “should” stand, it provided no mechanism for enforcement. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released the following statement: “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.”

The old NFL policy resembled the policy which the NBA has had in place for decades, which states: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.” Despite the absence of a set fine for an infraction, however, protests during the anthem never disturbed NBA games as they did NFL games.

Details of the new policy were unclear. Thus the amount of the fine to be imposed on teams in violation of it remained unknown, as did the extent to which specific conduct, besides kneeling and sitting, was classified as disrespectful, or whether any conduct was prescribed as respectful; players and staff of some teams, like the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, had linked arms during the anthem, whereas other players stood, but raised a fist. This supposed uncertainty, however, is a mirage: any sort of acting out during the playing of the national anthem is disrespectful; the millionaire players should not be drawing attention to themselves at that moment, since all attention should be on the flag. Federal law actually regulates the proper way for civilians and uniformed military to conduct themselves while the national anthem is being played:

During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there. (36 U.S.C. 171)

The NFL, therefore, does not need to re-invent the wheel. The distinction in posture was nicely illustrated last Monday at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Before laying the wreath, the President stood before the Tomb while the anthem was played; to his immediate left was a uniformed soldier, and to his left was James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense; before the anthem began to play, the soldier raised his arm in a salute, and both the President and the Secretary, a former general now in mufti, placed their hands over their hearts; the scene was repeated after the laying of the wreath, during the playing of “Taps.”

NFL games had suffered a steady decline in viewership after the kneeling, begun by Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, began to spread to other teams. An estimated decline of 9.7% in Nielsen ratings in 2017 led to a decline of 1.2% in ad revenue, from $2.45 billion to $2.42 billion; that decline is modest enough, but it is to be compared with increases of 3% in 2016 and 9.6% in 2015. But it should not be forgotten that NFL owners have pledged $89 million toward a “social justice package” or “settlement”; undoubtedly they had been hoping to pay for it out of increases in ad revenue; an increase of $30 million in ad revenue would have left them $59 million in the hole, but the decrease of $30 million means that the hole has gotten deeper, going from $89 million to $119 million.

The financial consequences of the protests apparently could no longer be ignored by the owners, all 32 of whom were present; the vote seems to have been technically unanimous inasmuch as there were no “no”-votes, but Jed York, the owner of the 49ers, stated afterward that he had abstained. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans, did not however get everything they wanted, since they had favored requiring all players to be present and to stand. The new policy thus represents a compromise; it is both stronger and weaker than the old: it is weaker inasmuch as it allows players to opt out of being present for the anthem, but stronger in specifically allowing the commissioner to fine teams for infractions.

The owners themselves might simply have made a business decision, deciding to adopt a rule making it possible to fine a team so that misbehavior during the anthem will stop, and so that they in turn stop losing offended fans and start regaining offended fans already lost; in other words, it is not clear how many of them actually believe that it is good to respect the flag and the anthem.

The NFL Players Association, however, has not seen the light: it immediately released a statement pledging to “challenge any aspect” of the new policy inconsistent with their collective bargaining agreement, but the rule will be included in the Game Operations Manual, which is not subject to collective bargaining. There was little reason to hope that the disruptive players had learned a lesson, given the unenthusiastic response of their union. And in the course of the day various players made statements indicating that they were dissatisfied with the new policy, and still didn’t see anything wrong with their protests during the anthem. Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins tweeted: “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.” He continued: “The national conversation around race in America that NFL players forced over the past 2 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.” This is the same Malcolm Jenkins who has said that he would not go along when the team is honored at the White House next month by President Trump for winning its first Super Bowl.

These statements are disconnected from reality. Americans in fact do not have “constitutional rights” to protest in the workplace on their employers’ time. Perhaps Jenkins has been too busy to notice that some of his announced goals are being accomplished by President Trump before his very eyes: just one day earlier (22 May) the House passed 360-59 the First Step Act, a bipartisan prison reform bill providing $50 million annually for the next five years to the Bureau of Prisons for drug treatment, education and job skills training; as for black unemployment, it is now at an all-time low.

It remains to be seen how many of the millionaire crybabies sulk in the locker room while the anthem is being played, and how many show respect for the anthem and the flag. If attitudes have not changed, there could be more double-standards such as allowing Kaepernick to wear socks depicting pigs in police uniforms, but refusing to allow the Cowboys to put decals on their helmets to honor the five Dallas police officers slain at the urging of Black Lives Matter. Equally unclear is the reaction of fans to players who skulk in the locker room during the anthem, whether they will credit them for forgoing their scandalous protests, or dislike them (if perhaps less) for refusing to honor the flag.

You could look at the new policy and say that the left-wing players won two concessions from the owners and management of the NFL: the players have the ability to opt out of respecting the flag, and the league will not be empowered to fine the offending the player personally. Although the team owner could fine the player in turn, some players will thus escape paying a fine in the amount which the league had imposed on the team. Christopher Johnson, chairman and CEO of the New York Jets while his brother, Robert “Woody” Johnson IV serves as Ambassador to the UK, told Newsday on Wednesday (23 May): “I do not like imposing any club-specific rules. If somebody 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…. 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.” No Jets player kneeled during the anthem last season, but players, coaches and Johnson locked arms while it played, presumably in the belief that this behavior was not disrespectful. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) in a tweet sent on Saturday (26 May) criticized Johnson for “encouraging a movement premised on lies vs. police.”

Some interested observers found the new NFL policy to be insufficient. Jason Whitlock opined that the league was trying to please everyone, and should have instituted a policy requiring everyone to be on field, and continuing to pay players who did not respect the flag, but penalizing them by not allowing them to play. Burgess Owens surmised that the NFL is ready to discard American fans in favor of new foreign fans in the international market, who don’t care about respecting the American flag.

Nevertheless, triggered leftists on social media were interpreting the new policy as a defeat for their side. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh stated: “The NFL has apparently caved to Donaldus Maximus…. This is such a reversal. This is, there’s no other way to look at this other than a complete Donald Trump victory…. This is the National Football League finally recognizing who its fans are.  But I’m here to tell you….the leftist sportswriters are going to lose it over this.”

President Trump, however, when told about the NFL decision by Brian Kilmeade, seemed to regard it as merely a partial victory, a step in the right direction: “Well, I think that’s good. I don’t think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still, I think it’s good. You have to stand, proudly, for the national anthem, or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, and the NFL owners did the right thing, if that’s what they’ve done.”

The best argument to be made in favor of the compromise is that a policy like that of the NBA, requiring both the presence of and respectful behavior from every player, could be viewed as forcing some players to display a patriotism which they do not feel. The challenge is to make them feel as they should. Something seems to have gone wrong with the system of public education in this country, and with the colleges and universities; the students being graduated seem to know very little about the history of the country. It is truly incomprehensible that they pick the precise moment of the anthem as the only appropriate one for their protest, when in fact it is the least appropriate and completely unacceptable. If their opinions mean so much to them and they insist on making them known on game day, they could become part of the half-time show; but if they really wanted to underscore how much they believe in what they believe, they could protest during the game itself, while the clock was running, instead of being on offense or defense.

One thing you have to admit: there is not another Republican in the country with the moxie to take on the NFL-kneelers; the rest would all be afraid of being called “racist.” It is right for the President, any President, to be concerned with national unity, and President Trump deserves praise for taking on the segment of the left which is sowing discord by protesting the flag and anthem. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that eventually, despite a policy allowing them to absent themselves from the anthem, all NFL players will choose to be present and to honor the flag for which so many soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice.