National Football League releases new rules regulating players’ actions during anthem

First posted September 6, 2018 4:49pm EDT
Last updated September 12, 2020 10:16am EDT

All Associated Themes:

  • Identity
  • Legal Action
  • Professional Consequences
  • Protest Politics
  • Social Media
  • Violence / Threats

Following the National Football League’s (NFL) spring league meeting, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced May 23, 2018, that team owners had voted unanimously to approve new rules concerning player conduct during the playing or singing of the national anthem before games. Many players had been kneeling during the anthem since 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the first to do so. According to Kaepernick and others, the gesture is intended as a form of protest against social injustice in America. The issue quickly escalated into a national debate after President Donald Trump weighed in on the matter during a May 24 interview on “Fox and Friends,” suggesting that Kaepernick and other protesters were un-American and that they should be fired from their jobs for their actions.

Key Players

The National Football League, which includes Commissioner Roger Goodell and 34 team owners (of 32 teams), holds regular meetings in which members vote on leaguewide policies. Team owners unanimously voted by a show of hands to approve three new rules during the May 23 meeting. Two concerned on-the-field play, but the third dealt with how players should act while the anthem is being played. There were two abstentions, one by San Francisco 49ers owner John Edward York and the other by Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis.

NFL players, including teammates Kaepernick and Eric Reid, and Seattle Seahawk Jeremy Lane, decided to use their national platform to draw attention to alleged police brutality and systemic racial inequality in the United States. Protests included kneeling, sitting, linking arms, and raising a clenched fist during the national anthem.

Further Details

After Kaepernick knelt before the 49ers’ final preseason game Sept. 1, 2016, other NFL players began following his lead. In addition to individual protests, players banded together into groups, occasionally even coordinating with their whole team to protest, as the Seattle Seahawks did just two weeks after Kaepernick’s initial anthem protest. Demonstrations like these continued into the 2017-18 season.

On May 23, 2018, Goodell announced that the league owners had voted to approve broad new measures related to anthem protests, but they had not consulted the NFL Players Association about their decision. The new rules stipulated that “All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. … [P]ersonnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the anthem has been performed.” In addition, the new rules established punitive measures in the event they are violated, including fines from the league and “appropriate discipline” to be determined by the NFL commissioner.

The Players Association released a statement shortly after the new rules were announced, asserting that it had not been consulted and that “NFL players have shown their patriotism through their social activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.” The statement ended with this promise: “Our union will review the new ‘policy’ and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”

However, the policy was suspended July 20 after it was discovered that the Miami Dolphins planned on implementing a team rule that any improper anthem conduct would result in suspension for up to four games. Many viewed this as harsher than the punishment outlined in the new league rule and noted that the penalty exceeded that given to players found guilty of domestic violence.


The NFL and NFL Players Association come to standoff, resulting in suspension of controversial anthem policy

As of Sept. 6, the official start of the 2019 NFL season, talks between the NFL and NFLPA were still on hold. While the agreement remains in a standstill, players are allowed to kneel, raise fists, or sit during the anthem, as some did during the 2019 preseason.

Fervor over protests dies down

In March 2019, The Washington Post ran an analysis suggesting that the NFL and society at large had seemingly moved on from Kaepernick and the national anthem protest phenomenon.

“…in the bigger picture, the quick retreat of the protests and Kaepernick from the front-and-center position they once occupied for the league, NFL fans and even the American public remains striking,” wrote the author, Mark Maske.