Houston Texans players kneel and stand during the singing of the national anthem before a game last October. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

ATLANTA – In an attempt to quell a controversy that engulfed the country’s most popular sport last fall, the NFL altered its policy regarding the national anthem, no longer requiring players to be on the field during its playing before games but allowing teams and the league to impose discipline for those who protest publicly during the song.

The new policy, announced Wednesday after a two-day meeting of the league’s 32 owners here, leaves it to individual teams to discipline players for acts deemed disrespectful during the anthem but also gives the league wide discretion to fine teams for actions taken by players. The changes met quickly with approval from Vice President Pence and skepticism from the NFL Players Association, which said it was not consulted on the changes.

“Clearly our objective as a league and to all 32 clubs, which was unanimous, is that we want people to be respectful of the national anthem,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

The changes are the latest development in a polarizing debate that began with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and then became more heated last fall following comments from President Trump, who first criticized protesting players at a rally and later ripped the league in a series of tweets for not taking stronger action.

Under the new policy, players may choose to remain in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem, but owners said that those who choose to be on the sideline will be expected to stand.  The changes also allow the league to fine teams for any protest during the anthem by one of its players.

“Those who are not comfortable standing for the anthem have the right to stay off the field,” Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II said. “We’re not forcing anybody to stand who doesn’t feel that that’s within the way they feel about particular subjects. But those that are on the field are going to be asked to stand. We’ve listened to a lot of different viewpoints, including our fans, over the last year. I think this policy is meant to come out at a place where we’re respecting everybody’s point of view on this as best we could.”

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last season that he would bench any player who refused to stand for the anthem. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said at the annual league meeting in March that NFL playing fields are not places for political statements. Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown reportedly told free agent safety Eric Reid this offseason that he planned to require Bengals players to stand for the anthem.

Any team or owner that wants to allow players to protest would have to be willing to pay a fine by the league. The NFL did not disclose the amount of such a fine. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks were among the teams that have been particularly tolerant of players’ protests.

Hours after the new policy was announced, Pence tweeted “#Winning,” with an image of an American flag and a screenshot of a CNN story about the new policy, which described the NFL’s decision as “a stunning victory for President Trump.” Pence’s tweet was retweeted by the White House’s official @POTUS account.

The NFL Players Association announced it would study the new policy and challenge any aspects of it that the union found to be in violation of the sport’s collective bargaining agreement.

“The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new ‘policy,'” the NFLPA said in its statement. “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.”

New York Jets Chairman Christopher Johnson told Newsday that he would not discipline a player on his team who protests and he would pay the league’s fine of the Jets in that case.

Jed York, the chief executive officer of the 49ers, told reporters that his team abstained from the vote.

“All 32 clubs want to ensure that during the moments that the anthem is played, that is a very important moment to all of us as a league, to our personnel and to our country,” Goodell said. “And that’s a moment that we want to make sure is done in a very respectful fashion.”

Many owners previously had said that while they would like players to stand for the anthem, they were not prepared to require it. That was the approach taken by owners when they met last October in New York and did not change the previous anthem policy.

They focused then on discussions with a group of players that led to a social justice initiative by which the league and teams are providing funding to players’ community activism.

Trump’s comments last fall put the league in a quandary, choosing between alienating a portion of its workforce or various segments of its fan base.

In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, a slight majority of Americans say it’s never appropriate to kneel during the national anthem in protest, but opinions are deeply divided along partisan, racial and ethnic lines. Fully 86 percent of Republicans said it’s never appropriate to kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest. That drops down to just about half of independents (51 percent) and less than 3 in 10 Democrats (29 percent) who said the same; 66 percent of Democrats said protesting the anthem is sometimes appropriate.

By a 69 percent to 22 percent margin, more African Americans said protests of the national anthem were acceptable than not.

Yet more than half of white (58 percent) and Hispanic adults (54 percent) said anthem protests are never appropriate.

In a season of sagging television ratings, observers and some owners wondered how much the backlash over the protests was affecting the economics of the nation’s most prosperous pro sports league.

“Last fall was difficult, I think, for all of us within the league,” Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy said. “But one of the real positives that came out of it was the improved relationship between management and the players. I think that’s been a real positive. We want that to continue as we move forward.”

Many owners spoke this week of their desire to put the focus of fans back on the games being played.

“I look forward to getting the focus back on football and getting back to football in 2018,” Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said.

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