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NFL owners could change anthem policy next season if protests continue

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Some NFL owners believe there is a strong possibility they will enact an offseason change to the league’s national anthem policy if players’ protests during the anthem persist through the end of this season, reverting to a previous approach of keeping players in the locker room while the anthem is played, according to several people familiar with the league’s inner workings.

“I think that if players are still kneeling at the end of the year, then it could very well happen,” said one person familiar with the owners’ deliberations on anthem-related issues.

That person said it was “too early to tell” for certain if the change to the anthem policy will be made by owners and the league. The person was “not sure” if a formal vote of the owners would be required to enact such a change but said, “I think most owners would support it, particularly if players continue to kneel this season.”

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Those sentiments were echoed by several others with knowledge of the owners’ thinking on the matter. They said they did not know at this point exactly how many owners would favor such an approach, and they cautioned that there have been no detailed discussions yet about leaving teams and players in the locker room for the anthem because owners did not consider it appropriate to make an in-season change to the policy.

But they agreed that if the protests last all season and remain intensely controversial among fans, the issue will be raised during the offseason and a policy change to having players remain in the locker room until the anthem’s conclusion would have the support of a significant number of owners. They said the matter could be addressed at the annual league meeting in March.

“It would certainly have to be considered very strongly,” said an official with an NFL franchise who is familiar with the thinking of that team’s owner on the matter.

The NFL declined to comment.

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The change to having players and coaches on the sideline for the anthem was made in 2009. The current league policy says that players must be on the sideline for the anthem. It suggests but does not require that players stand for the anthem.

At various points this season some players, including full teams, have remained off the field during the playing of the anthem. They have not been fined or otherwise disciplined by the NFL.

The league has been under intense pressure from President Trump and some fans to require players to stand during the anthem. In September, Trump said during a campaign speech in Alabama that owners should fire any player who protested during the anthem. His fiery speech included a reference to such a player being a “son of a bitch,” and it fueled an intense national controversy over the issue.

NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell said players should stand for the national anthem at a press conference on Oct. 18. (Video: Reuters)

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The pressure from the White House has not relented. After Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch refused to stand for the U.S. anthem before Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots in Mexico City, Trump offered critical comments Monday on Twitter.

“Marshawn Lynch of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders stands for the Mexican Anthem and sits down to boos for our national anthem,” Trump wrote. “Great disrespect! Next time NFL should suspend him for remainder of season. Attendance and ratings way down.”

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Owners held a series of meetings last month in New York focused on the anthem and related topics. Owners met with representatives of the players, then held their regularly scheduled fall owners’ meeting. Owners emerged from those meetings without enacting a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. But even without such a requirement, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners said they wanted players to stand.

“We believe everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Goodell said at the conclusion of the October owners’ meeting. “That’s an important part of our policy. It’s also an important part of our game that we all take great pride in. And it’s also important for us to honor our flag and our country, and we think our fans expect us to do that.”

Goodell and owners said then that they were focused on discussions with the players about league support of players’ community activism. They said they hoped that such support would convince players to voluntarily stand for the anthem, although they cautioned there was no formal or implied agreement that NFL support of players’ activism would lead to all players standing.

“This is not a trade-off,” Jed York, the chief executive officer of the San Francisco 49ers, said at the October meeting. “From what I’ve read, there are some players that have said that they’re still not considering standing yet. And that never came up in the meeting. … This has been, ‘How do we take protest to progress?’ How do we make sure that we move these issues forward that matter to the players and I think that matter to the owners?”

Players and owners have not had a face-to-face meeting since then and have not completed a formal policy for league support of players’ activism. But the conversations have continued, and an agreement could be coming.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he would bench any player on his team who protested during the anthem and thereby, in Jones’s view, showed disrespect to the American flag. But other owners said at the October meeting that the overwhelming majority of owners wanted players to stand for the anthem but did not want to enact a rule requiring it.

The players’ protest movement began last season with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the 49ers. He refused to stand for the anthem to protest racial inequality in the U.S. and the treatment of African Americans by police. Kaepernick was not signed by an NFL team this season and has filed a grievance accusing teams of collusion.

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The NFL’s current policy is in its game operations manual, sent by the league to teams, and not in its publicly available rule book. The policy says: “The national anthem must be played before 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.”

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One NFL sponsor, Papa John’s, recently criticized the NFL for a lack of leadership related to the players’ protests, although the pizza maker later issued an apology to those who believed its stance was divisive. With TV ratings sagging and Jones citing the league’s current financial circumstances as a reason for his bid to stall Goodell’s pending five-year contract extension with the owners, some owners have acknowledged that the anthem controversy and the protests have had an effect on the business of the NFL.

“We know how important this is to our sponsors, our partners, our licensees,” Goodell said at last month’s owners’ meeting. “It’s important to us, also. We all share that.”

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