By Daniel Trotta
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The National Football League will fine teams if players on the field refuse to stand for the national anthem, the league said on Wednesday in a victory for U.S. President Donald Trump, who loudly demanded an end to such protests last year.
Some NFL players knelt during the anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men, sparking a controversy as Trump criticized the players as being unpatriotic.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday announced a new policy that will fine teams if players on the field fail to stand during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Players who choose not to stand may now remain in the locker room until after the anthem is finished.
The NFL Players Association criticized the new policy, saying it was not consulted and that it may issue a challenge should it violate the collective bargaining agreement.
The policy rekindled the debate about whether kneeling is an affront to America or a patriotic expression of free speech, and has again pitted billionaire owners against mostly African-American players.
“Telling peaceful protesters to leave and do it behind closed doors is dangerous and un-American,” the American Civil Liberties Union said on Twitter.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, but Vice President Mike Pence tweeted a headline about the new policy with the comment “#Winning.”
However, there were some signs of dissension among team owners. San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York said his team abstained from the league vote on the policy, The New York Times reported, and New York Jets Chairman Christopher Johnson told Newsday he would pay any fines.
“If somebody (on the Jets) takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players,” Johnson said.
The kneeling controversy rattled a $14 billion industry and its mostly conservative team owners, and the new policy attempts to resolve a distraction for them, said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising.
“For advertisers, football’s still a great buy … Ratings have dipped a little bit … (but it is) still one of the strongest live events you can buy in television,” Dorfman said.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the protests in 2016, and when he was shunned by all 32 teams in the league, going unsigned for the entire 2017 season, players and commentators questioned whether he was being blackballed by the owners. He has filed a grievance against the league, saying the owners colluded to keep him from being signed.
The anthem protests started to fizzle late in the recent season when the NFL said it would donate $89 million over seven years to social justice causes.
The NFL last year rejected Trump’s calls to punish players who protest, but said the league’s players should stand.
Goodell, in Wednesday’s statement, defended the patriotism of NFL players, as did the NFLPA.
The new policy says players must “show respect” as they stand, but not does not silence them completely.
“There are still plenty of ways to use our voice and platform,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told USA Today, questioning whether they might be allowed to raise a fist.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; additional reporting by Andrew Both and Rory Carroll; editing by G Crosse)