The National Football League quietly tweaked its national anthem policy to give teams incentive to punish players who protest.
The league offered a copy of its national anthem policy to news outlets for Monday Night Football this week. A small but significant change in the policy gives the power to teams to punish players for protesting during the national anthem, Deadspin reported.
The policy also states that teams who have players protesting the national anthem may lose one or more draft picks. The small tweak thus gives teams incentive to have their players honor the anthem and the right to punish them if they do not.
The NFL did not provide a notice of the policy change. The rulebook that contains the policy is an internal document, but Deadspin had acquired a copy of the “Policy Manual for Member Clubs” in 2014 and spotted the difference.
In the 2014 version, the manual states that “failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in disciplinary action from the League office.” Meanwhile, the version put out by the NFL on Monday states that offenses may “result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violation of the above, including first offenses.”
The new version no longer says that the punishment has to come from the league office and lists severe repercussions for teams who let their players protest.
The league did not respond to Deadspin’s request for comment.
Both the 2014 and 2017 versions of the manual give the following instructions for honoring the anthem:
“Players on the field should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. Players in the bench area should do the same and should line themselves up evenly along the sidelines.”
The NFL gave the new policy to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, who later spoke to Dallas Cowboys coach Jerry Jones about it. Jones said that the policy is not new, adding, “You know who reminded me about the game ops policy? Donald Trump.”
Given Jones’ comment, it’s unclear when NFL changed the internal policy. Though the change occurred sometime after 2014, the revised language was made public for the first time on Monday.
The Wall Street Journal reported that team owners plan to discuss the policy on standing for the national anthem next week.
NFL television viewership ratings tumbled to a season-low on Monday, with fewer Americans watching the Monday Night Football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Redskins than any other regular-season NFL game this year, Deadline reported.
The league, the owners, and ESPN have plenty to be concerned about as NFL ratings continue their steady decline since last year. In 2016, owners blamed one of the most-watched presidential campaigns in history, but viewership didn’t pick up this year, and the league’s image took a hard hit after the wave of national anthem protests started last September by ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Now a league spokesman says that owners are set to meet next week and the policy on standing for the national anthem is “front and center” on their agenda. The owners will consider the players’ input, but a rule change would not require player approval, the Journal’s Matthew Futterman reported.
“I don’t believe that the anthem per se is something that needs to be collectively bargained,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said.
The news of a rule change for the national anthem ceremony comes after weeks of criticism from President Donald Trump, who triggered a wave of protests by NFL players by saying that those who don’t stand for the national anthem should be fired.
More than 180 players kneeled during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the Sunday after Trump’s comments, but the president did not back down.
The controversy, pushed back into the headlines by Trump, does not fare well for the league’s image. A Winston Poll found that NFL has become the least liked major league in America. In the strongest indication of the league’s disconnect from its audience, favorability ratings among its core fans, males aged 34-54, dropped 31 percent from late August to late September.
The NFL player manual says that players should stand for the anthem but does not say they must.
National Football League Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told the Journal that league officials promised the association that there would be no punishment for protesting during the anthem.
News of the rule-change discussion also landed shortly after Trump threated to hit NFL in the wallet by going after its tax breaks.
“Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Lockhart said that NFL gave up its tax-exempt status in 2015. He added that many stadiums are built using tax-exempt bonds, but stressed that the arrangement spurs economic development.
President Trump and the White House did not provide clarity on the tax breaks question.
If a rule is approved, players who disrespect the national anthem may face fines.