New England Patriots players hold hands and kneel during the national anthem prior to a game last season. (John Cetrino/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)
Columnist

The NFL owners, most of them old white men who would rather be left alone to count their money, finally have figured out how they want to defuse player protests. They’re going to attempt to shove the issue into the bowels of stadiums and eliminate the powerful and controversial image of athletes making pleas for equality during the national anthem. Throw those problems in the closet and block the door. If nothing else, it’s less expensive than tearing up the turf to bury the players and their societal concerns.

Eight months after President Trump called the players “sons of bitches” for caring about silly things such as police brutality, the NFL revised its anthem policy Wednesday afternoon. Eight months after several owners locked arms with their players and denounced the president’s tactless verbal assault, the league coated the new guidelines in compromise — players and teams now can opt not to be on the field during the “Star-Spangled Banner” — but the policy also clarifies and strengthens punishment if members of a team choose to protest while on the field for the patriotic display.

Franchises can be fined an undisclosed amount for any demonstrations. Clubs have the right to develop their own rules, too. And Commissioner Roger Goodell now has the power to “impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.”

As best it could — or as best a group of too many like-minded people could — the NFL tried to play the middle on an issue that has no middle. The players have options, at least. And the owners get what they want most: They have minimized the likelihood that the public sees another polarizing image of an athlete making a statement before a game. Regardless of where you stand on the protests, you should be able to understand why the NFL, from a business standpoint, needs the game to return to being the star of the sport. The league needed to find a way to rise above this controversy and appease the fans who care only about football without overcorrecting and alienating those who are more tolerant of the protests.

In the short term, this is an okay resolution. Just okay. The new policy, combined with the $89 million partnership forged in December with the Players Coalition, reduces risk of the protests dominating headlines next season. But if you think in a more strategic manner, this is a questionable long-term policy, and it’s made worse because the NFL Players Association is upset because it wasn’t consulted during the drafting of these rules.

The policy lacks clarity because it’s trying to placate so many people, and mixed messages are never good for authority. What’s worse is that, after having all this time to meet with players and understand their concerns, the NFL resorted to the Trump-pacifying language “respect for the flag and the anthem.” That phrase is used four times in the policy statement. The words “social justice” are used just once.

The protesting players have spent months trying to dispel the idea that their protests are indicative of a lack of respect for the country, but what does the NFL do when given the opportunity to write a thoughtful policy statement? It goes back to that tired narrative, which makes it seem as if the players are protesting merely for the sake of protesting.

The league could have used this news event to show what it had learned amid all the fuss and prove the power of compassionate discourse. Instead, it chose to talk about “respect,” as if giving a shout-out to Trump, the man who hijacked the issue and turned it into an oversimplified referendum on patriotism.

On Twitter, the ACLU responded to the NFL’s policy by writing, “Telling peaceful protesters to leave and do it behind closed doors is dangerous and un-American.”

It also wrote: “The NFL players’ protests have never been about the military or the flag. They’re about police brutality and white supremacy. Failing to protest injustice in America is not patriotic; it’s dangerous.”

It’s funny when you think about Goodell and the NFL attempting to be arbitrators of what constitutes respect. The league can’t define something as elementary as a catch, and now it hopes to dictate the terms of something as complicated as respect for the flag.

It’s important to remind you — again — that the NFL unknowingly created this problem in 2009 when it started requiring teams to take the field during the anthem because it would make the league appear more patriotic. It was typical NFL shortsighted behavior. It wanted to use the flag and the anthem to enhance its brand. It didn’t consider carefully that the players might use that pregame moment for different reasons.

So let’s talk about respecting the flag and anthem one more time. If it is disrespectful to kneel or make a gesture that says, “America, please be better!” during those two minutes, then what is the adjective that describes using the reverential moment as a charade to market how good and overtly American the NFL is?

Furthermore, when you review the guidelines for proper flag display, there’s nothing in there that says it is acceptable to create a giant flag in the shape of the United States and spread it over the field so it looks good on television or makes for cool Instagram pictures. But the NFL and other sports leagues do it. And why is that acceptable? Because you have to consider the intent? If that is the case, it’s only reasonable to ponder the intent of a football player who says he chooses to kneel because it’s considered a more respectful gesture of protest.

It’s complicated. No matter how you feel, can you at least admit that? And the wonderful thing about this country is that it is not ruled by a totalitarian regime that demands reverence of a symbol to prove patriotism, loyalty or even love of the nation.

You can go back 75 years and read the relevant words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. In 1943, he wrote for a 6-3 majority that the state could not make students salute the flag: “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes.”

Of course, there’s a difference between constitutional rights and the consequences of the actions of NFL players. The athletes must adhere to league policies, and most of them will follow this latest one. This is what’s best for the NFL’s multibillion-dollar monopoly, and the players make millions from it, too. So on the surface, the issue will get shoved out of the limelight. For now, at least.

But if this has been a window into how the NFL tries to solve complicated matters, you should definitely fear for its dwindling status as an invincible institution.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.