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What’s next for NFL and players’ protests after league enacts new national anthem policy?

Are protests by NFL players during the national anthem a thing of the past? (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

ATLANTA — After NFL owners voted Wednesday to enact a new national anthem policy for the 2018 season, they spoke about their hopes of being able to move on from the contentiousness and controversy of last season. They talked about their goal of turning fans’ attention away from protests and politics and patriotism, and putting it back squarely on the football being played on the field.

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

But have owners and the league accomplished that?

It remains to be seen.

NFL owners approve new national anthem policy designed to end players’ protests

The new policy that owners ratified on the final day of their two-day spring meeting at an Atlanta hotel does not quite guarantee the end of the players’ protest movement.

The policy gives players the option to remain in the locker room rather than be on the field for the playing of the anthem before games. Owners and the league said their expectation is that any player who opts to be on the sideline for the anthem will stand. The new policy gives the league the right to fine a team if one of its players protests during the anthem.

But the issue of whether a player would be disciplined for protesting during the anthem is left to that player’s team to decide, under the new policy. Christopher Johnson, the chairman of the New York Jets, wasted no time making it clear that there will not necessarily be uniformity in the approaches taken by the 32 teams toward players’ protests. He told Newsday on Wednesday that he would not discipline any Jets player who protests during the anthem and he would pay the league’s fine of the team if that happens.

It’s not clear if any other teams will be as tolerant. But Jed York, the chief executive officer of the San Francisco 49ers, told reporters Wednesday that he’d abstained from the owners’ vote on the new anthem policy. The 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have been particularly supportive in the past of their players’ right to protest. Meanwhile, the league has not specified how much a team would be fined if one of its players protests during the anthem.

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The NFL Players Association announced almost immediately that it would study the new policy and challenge any aspect of it that the union believes violates the sport’s collective bargaining agreement. DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, took to social media to lament the owners’ action.

“History has taught us that both patriotism and protest are like water; if the force is strong enough it cannot be suppressed,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “Today, the CEO’s of the NFL created a rule that people who hate autocracies should reject.

“Management has chosen to quash the same freedom of speech that protects someone who wants to salute the flag in an effort to prevent someone who does not wish to do so.

“The sad irony of this rule is that anyone who wants to express their patriotism is subject to the whim of a person who calls himself an ‘Owner.’ I know that not all of the NFL CEO’s are for this and I know that true American patriots are not cheering today.”

Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins also was critical of the new policy.

Eagles’ Chris Long knocks NFL anthem policy: ‘This is not patriotism’

“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,” Jenkins wrote on Instagram. “Everyone loses when voices get stifled.

“While I disagree with this decision, I will not let it silence or stop me from fighting. 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.

“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 change for real people.”

Jenkins is a leader of the Players Coalition, the group with which the league negotiated last year to forge the social justice initiative by which the NFL and teams are providing funding for players’ community activism. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dealt directly with Jenkins and a few other players during those deliberations. It was a level of cooperation rarely seen in recent years between the league and players. So there is room to wonder now if that has been undermined by the passage of the new anthem policy.

“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.”

The NFL enacted a new policy May 23 that requires players to stand for the national anthem or wait in the locker room. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Some owners were left to wonder last season how much of an impact the backlash among some fans about the protests was having on the NFL’s popularity. President Trump had criticized the protests, calling on owners to fire any player who refused to stand for the anthem. Trump turned the national debate, at least in the minds of many, to one about the players’ patriotism, rather than one about the issues of racial inequality and police brutality that the protests were meant to target.

While many owners expressed support for the players’ right to protest, they wanted players to stand for the anthem and they wanted to get the NFL out of the middle of such a divisive and combative public debate. The new policy is the league’s attempt to bring that about. Whether it works will be one of the major story lines of the 2018 season.

Read more:

Jets chairman: No ‘repercussions’ for my players if they protest during anthem

Brewer: The NFL, in seeking the middle of the road, has set itself up to be flattened

Poll: 53 percent of Americans say it’s ‘never appropriate’ to kneel during the national anthem