The NFL’s new policy on player conduct during pregame renditions of the national anthem leaves it up to individual teams to devise their own “work rules” about how they define showing “respect for the flag and the anthem.” The league, however, reserves the right to fine teams if their players are not standing while on the sideline during the anthem, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has the authority to “impose appropriate discipline on league personnel” who violate the policy.
As far as Jets Chairman Christopher Johnson is concerned, though, his players can essentially do whatever their consciences tell them without any “repercussions” from his team. If the league wants to impose fines, Johnson said, he’ll pay them himself, all the better to support players who are “on the front lines” of “some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with.”
In comments Wednesday to Newsday’s Bob Glauber, Johnson said that “of course” he preferred that his players stand during the anthem, but he added, “I understand if they felt the need to protest.”
“I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” Johnson said. “If somebody [on the Jets] 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.”
“I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t,” Johnson added. “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.”
Johnson is the younger brother of Jets owner Woody Johnson, who turned over control of the team on an interim basis while he serves a three-year term as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. Woody Johnson, a major Republican fundraiser and the national finance chairman for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, was nominated for the post by President Trump in June 2017 and was confirmed by the Senate in August.
Christopher Johnson made clear in March that he was not in favor of mandating how players comport themselves during the anthem, reportedly saying, “I can’t speak to how other people run their teams, but I just think that trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea.”
At that time, during NFL meetings in Orlando, Texans owner Bob McNair took a differing view, saying, “We’re going to deal with [the issue of protests] in such a way, I think, that people will understand that we want everybody to respect our country, respect our flag. And our playing fields, that’s not the place for political statements.”
The owners’ vote Wednesday, arrived at during league meetings in Atlanta, was 31-0 in favor of the policy, with San Francisco’s Jed York abstaining. The 49ers owner said he wanted to hear more from players about the new regulations — the players’ union complained that it was not consulted about them and that the vote “contradicts” statements made to it by NFL officials — but York added that he might extend the logic of the league’s position to a ban on concession sales at his team’s stadium during the anthem.
“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,” York said (via Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times).
Johnson told Newsday that he “seriously struggled” with getting on board with the policy. “You know my position on the anthem, and you have to understand that the plan we ended up with, due to some serious work in the [meeting] room, was vastly less onerous than the one that was presented to me late last week,” he said. “In the end, I felt I had to support it from a membership standpoint.”
In a statement posted by the Jets, Johnson said that he planned to confer with Coach Todd Bowles on how to approach the new regulations. “We will continue to work closely with our players to constructively advance social justice issues that are important to us,” Johnson said. “I remain extremely proud of how we demonstrated unity last season as well as our players’ commitment to strengthening our communities.”
Johnson was among several NFL owners who locked arms with players, coaches and other staffers in widespread demonstrations before Week 3 games last season, after Trump had sharply criticized the protests at a rally in Alabama, with the president saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ” The Jets, including Johnson, continued that practice for subsequent games, while the team had no players kneel or sit during the anthem at any point in the season.
The wording of the policy leaves it unclear whether locking arms during the anthem, or raising fists, for that matter, would be viewed by the league as failing to “show respect for the flag and the anthem,” as long as those doing so were standing. It will be left up to individual teams to make those sorts of determinations, if they so choose, and it’s apparent that Johnson’s Jets will not do so.
That will likely be in contrast to the Steelers, whose owner, Art Rooney II, said Wednesday (via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press) that he viewed locking arms or raising fists as disrespectful. Johnson, though, is less concerned with what his players do during the anthem than with how he and they can continue the “momentum that we have built up on these issues of social justice, on legislation, and all the things that we can do.”
“I don’t think that this policy will interfere with that at all,” Johnson said. “I have a really good relationship with the players, and I hope we can keep that going and I trust that we will. I’m so proud of our players and their efforts to date.”
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