President Donald Trump has repeatedly called on the NFL to punish players like Colin Kaepernick who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
“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!’” Trump said at a rally last September.
Now the NFL is answering Trump’s call. Although the league won’t kick players off the field or shout profanity at them, it will punish players for kneeling during the anthem.
On Wednesday, the NFL and the owners of its 32 teams announced a new policy: Players will no longer be required to be on the field during the anthem, and may stay in the locker room during that time if they choose. But those who do go out to the field and don’t stand could face a penalty.
The new policy does not ban kneeling outright, instead allowing individual teams to create their own rules and penalties for players who kneel or sit during the anthem. But the policy also gives the league the ability to fine teams whose players take a knee or sit while on the field.
“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a statement released on Wednesday.
“The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed,” Goodell said. “The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honored to work with our players to drive progress.”
He continued: “It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.”
Statement from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pic.twitter.com/1Vn7orTo1R— NFL (@NFL) May 23, 2018
In the hours since the announcement, the NFL has been heavily criticized for its decision. The NFL Players Association has said that it was not consulted before the new policy was announced.
The NFL has been discussing the protests for months
The kneeling protests started in the summer of 2016 when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem at several preseason games. When his actions were noticed by reporters, Kaepernick said he was taking a knee to protest police violence and America’s mistreatment of people of color. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told NFL.com in 2016.
Kaepernick later switched his protest to kneeling after critics argued that sitting was offensive to the military. A number of other players joined the kneeling protest during the season.
Kaepernick has since been left teamless in the wake of his protest, going unsigned since he opted out of his 49ers contract last year. Kaepernick and former 49ers safety Eric Reid, who also went unsigned after he became a vocal participant in the protests, have both filed complaints against the NFL, alleging that NFL owners are blacklisting them because they chose to kneel.
President Trump drew even more attention to the protests last September when he called for NFL owners to fire protesting players and argued that kneeling protesters did not respect America or the flag.
While several team owners sided with their players immediately after Trump’s initial comments, the league quickly pivoted to working to make the issue go away as quickly as possible, with some owners threatening to penalize players who continued to protest.
Last month, the New York Times reported on an October 2017 meeting where NFL executives, owners, and players discussed the protests, with some team owners arguing that it was a chance for the NFL to make a major social impact.
But with a new season on the horizon, the NFL has indicated that all it really wants is for the protests to go away. “We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it,” Goodell said in his Wednesday statement.
For more on the controversy, listen to the May 23 episode of Today Explained.