- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2018

NFL owners stood up Wednesday to the kneelers, voting to ban on-field protests during the national anthem after two years of social justice activism, fan outrage and flagging viewership — but that doesn’t mean game over.

The NFL Players Association blasted the policy change, warning that it would challenge any aspect “inconsistent with the collective-bargaining agreement,” while the decision was decried by others as an infringement of the players’ free speech rights.

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long accused the league of bowing to President Trump, who whipped up opposition last year to the take-a-knee protests, adding that the owners “don’t love America more than the players.”

“This is fear of a diminished bottom line,” Mr. Long said in a statement. “It’s also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don’t get it confused.”

For NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners, however, the decision struck a balance between respecting the views of players who object to standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and those offended by athletes using the anthem ceremony to further a political agenda.

The revision to the Game Operations Manual allows players and other team personnel to remain in the locker room during “The Star-Spangled Banner” but requires those who take the field “to stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”

Clubs with players who violate the policy will be fined. The NFL commissioner will also “impose appropriate discipline” on anyone who runs afoul of the rule, approved at the league’s annual spring meeting in Atlanta.

“We think we’ve come up with a balanced process here and a procedure and policy that will allow those players who think they can’t stand for the anthem to stay in the locker room,” Mr. Goodell said. “There’s no penalty for that, but we are going to encourage all of them to be on the field. We’d like all of them to be on the field and to stand at attention.”

In addition, teams may develop their own sets of rules for personnel “who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem,” said the NFL statement.

Team owners said at a press conference that their goal was to place the focus back on the game.

“We’ve listened to a lot of different viewpoints, including our fans’, over the last year, and I think this policy attempts to come out in a place where we’ve respected everybody’s point of view as best we could,” said Arthur Rooney II, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Several owners said the debate over the protests, which began in 2016 in reaction to the deaths of black men at the hands of police, brought them closer to their players.

“[We] have grown much closer to our players as we work through this process, and I think the solution that we’ve come up with is a good one,” said Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

Christopher Johnson, chairman of the New York Jets, said the team would not impose its own “club-specific rules” such as fines and suspensions on players who violate the policy.

The league’s decision came as a win for Mr. Trump, whose frequent tweets during the 2017 season blasting the take-a-knee protests — and his suggestion that owners fire anyone who refuses to stand — kept the issue in the cultural and political spotlight.

Vice President Mike Pence cheered the decision by tweeting an article about the policy change and the hashtag “#Winning,” along with an American flag.

A number of players asked Wednesday about the decision said it didn’t affect them. Fewer than 20 players were still protesting by the end of the 2017 regular season, and no players sat or knelt during the postseason.

Chicago Bears outside linebacker Sam Acho said the players who protested did what they set out to do.

“To be honest, I think a lot of players are happy about the conversations that are happening,” he told ESPN. “So the protest served their purpose.”

Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he was proud of his team last year for standing for the anthem.

“[A] lot of people have died for that flag, and that flag represents our country and what we stand for. I think that’s important. I’ll stop there,” Mr. Zimmer told reporters.

Others said they were just happy to see the issue resolved.

“I’m glad they came to an agreement in some form or another,” said Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. “I’ll be out there standing.”

Mr. Goodell reported that the vote was unanimous, although one of the 32 owners, Jed York of the San Francisco 49ers, said he abstained from the vote and announced that he would stop serving concessions during the anthem at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“For us, we’re going to close concession sales during the national anthem,” he said in a video interview on ESPN. “I don’t think we should profit during the national anthem if we’re going to ask people to be respectful. I think that’s something we should do to be respectful.”

Mr. York added that he wanted to “make sure we focus on the progress aspect of this, not focus on the protest.”

In March, the NFL upped its commitment to social justice by approving a seven-year, $90 million package, which includes funding for the United Negro College Fund, the Players Coalition and the Dream Corps, a leftist advocacy group founded by former Obama administration official Van Jones.

It may take more than consigning protesters to the locker room to win back some fans.

Robert Kuykendall, spokesman for 2ndVote, a conservative corporate watchdog group, said “damage done to the league’s brand may be irreversible because the NFL is still funding the left’s agenda using the dollars fans spend on tickets and merchandise.”

“After two years of inaction, the NFL is hoping to bring fans back by finally getting the inappropriate and disrespectful national anthem protests under control,” he said in an email. “But, professional football will remain politicized as long as the league continues to directly fund leftists at the behest of the players.”

NFL ratings declined in 2017 by 9.7 percent from the previous season — and Super Bowl LII lost nearly 8 million viewers — a drop some critics of the league blamed on its lukewarm response to the fans upset over the protests.

Others pointed out that broadcast television audiences are shrinking overall, no matter the programming, and that factors like a seasonlong slate of lackluster games and ongoing concerns about concussions probably contributed to a second straight year of declining NFL ratings.

Politically, the league was hit by both sides: While conservatives were outraged by the protests, supporters of free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick launched a boycott after no team picked him up last year following his high-profile kneeling during the 2016 regular season.

He and free-agent safety Eric Reid, another dedicated kneeler, have filed grievances against the NFL citing collusion among the owners to prevent them from playing.

Mr. Kaepernick did not comment immediately Wednesday on the NFL’s decision, although he retweeted a post from his attorney Mark Geragos that simply said #nflcollusion.

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