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NFL's national anthem policy leaves room for more controversy

ATLANTA -- Perhaps the most interesting -- and potentially problematic -- parts of the NFL's new policy governing conduct during the national anthem are the portions that haven't even been written yet. While the league will fine teams that have players who protest on the field during the anthem, each organization is responsible for developing its own workplace rules on how it will handle players who violate the new policy. As owners left the Spring League Meeting on Wednesday afternoon, it was clear there could be vast differences among team policies -- with some owners calling for significant fines for players who protest on the sideline, and some possibly having no workplace rules at all.

That is the big takeaway from this new national anthem policy: In their desire to create a policy that would make clear that the NFL and players respect the flag and keep the league ahead of any future controversies -- especially with midterm elections looming -- the owners left so much gray area that everyone might be susceptible anyway.

One example of a potential issue arose even before the owners were done voting: San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York, who has been vocal in support of the players' right to protest and who employed Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who began the protests two years ago, abstained from the vote in large part because he did not feel there was enough player involvement in the process. York stated he will also consider halting concession sales during the national anthem, because, he said, he did not think the team should profit during that period. That, of course, would also force fans -- many of whom don't stand at attention during the Star-Spangled Banner -- to stand for the anthem, too.

York was asked if he would have a problem paying a fine if one of his players protested.

"I think that's a conversation we'll have with our players and I'm hopeful that, with our players, they know that I will stand up for them," York said. "I've stood up for them in the past, I'll stand up for them in the future. I hope that we can have a good, respectful conversation of, Is it the best policy for us to write a check to the league? Or can we find a better way to use this money? That's a conversation that I would like to have with our players. But I'm not going to force anybody to do anything that they're uncomfortable with -- and I think this policy, from that standpoint, allows players to have time and space in the locker room if they choose not to come out. Again, is it the perfect solution for me? I think Roger [Goodell] said very clearly, it's a compromise. But this has to be a conversation, I think, between me and our players and figure out the best way to move forward. Again, the goal, I think, has always been to progress social justice reform and that's what I want to stick to, is making sure that we progress in that movement."

Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, a co-founder of the Players Coalition who is very active in social justice matters, expressed his displeasure with the process Wednesday on Twitter:

All of this means that the conversation around the anthem, an issue the owners plainly want to go away, isn't likely to ebb any time soon, at least until the individual team policies are known and players make their decisions on how they will proceed. That, of course, will play out against the backdrop of the country's overheated political rhetoric. The NFL and teams must still clarify the answers to looming questions: What, exactly, constitutes respectful behavior? Does a raised fist count as protest? Is it OK if half the team chooses to remain in the locker room during the anthem?

The NFL Players Association issued a statement Wednesday noting that it was not consulted on the new policy and saying it would watch closely what the league and team rules will be, to see if they violate the collective bargaining agreement. Unsaid: The union is prepared to file a grievance if it believes the rules or team punishment are out of line. That was almost certainly a consideration as owners crafted the new policy. Owners likely believed that discipline of a player by the league would be much more vulnerable to scrutiny under the CBA than team discipline.

The next few months of the offseason will be critical, though, if the league hopes to avoid a repeat of last year, when the controversy over player protests nearly engulfed the entire season. Owners will return to their teams and talk to their players in the coming weeks and go about the task of crafting rules that will likely reflect the owners -- and, perhaps more importantly, the market they represent.

This policy was a compromise -- not with players, but among a group of owners who made no secret of their differences on the subject. When they arrived in Atlanta, there was no consensus, and this policy was just barely one. The compromise placates owners who no longer want the sight of players kneeling during the anthem, but it also assuages the concerns of owners who feel that mandating everybody stand would infringe on the players' right to protest. Finally, it gives owners power -- something they love -- to run their teams the way they want.

The range of potential rules was hinted at even before owners left the hotel. New York Jets CEO Christopher Johnson released a statement saying his focus is not on imposing fines or regulations from the team. Dallas Cowboys boss Jerry Jones, who last season said that he would bench any player who did not stand for the anthem, was pleased with the policy and emphasized he wants to stick to football. When asked what he will do if a Cowboys player kneels during the anthem, he responded:

"I don't do conjecture, but this gives us a uniform way, a uniform understanding, so all players around the league can see where we are," Jones said.

Giants CEO John Mara, one of the league's most influential owners, said he does not yet know what rules he might impose for his team, and he wants to meet with the players before making that decision.

The league policy mandates that players must stand if they are on the sideline, but it gives them the option of remaining in the locker room if they do not want to stand. The policy also calls for teams to be fined by the league if a player protests on the field during the anthem. In a wrinkle, the money the league collects from teams in fines may go toward the social justice initiatives that the NFL and a coalition of players have joined together to support.

NFL owners walked a fine line with the rule, wanting to provoke neither players nor president. Ever since President Donald J. Trump criticized players who knelt during the anthem last fall, owners have heard from a group of fans and sponsors who were upset over the protests last season, and a number of them were concerned about the impact on the game's bottom line, including on television ratings, even as the value of new media deals has risen. Privately, though, owners and league officials were angry that players and the league were portrayed in some quarters as being unpatriotic and unsupportive of the military.

According to people familiar with the conversations, Commissioner Roger Goodell has never wanted to order all players to stand, and this policy avoids that. Some owners, including New England Patriots chairman Robert Kraft, said they thought awareness of social justice issues had been raised since then, including among owners, and many of them were mindful of not taking a step back by trying to force all players to stand for the anthem. They arrived at this meeting determined to come up with some policy, fearing that the politically explosive topic could be reignited during campaigns in the midterm election season.

They emerged with an imperfect policy, heavy on the concept of respect but perhaps likely to poke a hornet's nest of opposition, even though only a handful of players among the nearly 2,000 in the league were still protesting by the end of last season. Mark Murphy, president of the Green Bay Packers, said owners spent a considerable amount of time discussing players and how they might react.

"A lot of different constituencies had different points of view," Steelers owner Art Rooney II said. "We really tried to respect everybody's position as much as we could. We spent a lot of time working with our players over the last year. Very few players were kneeling at the end of the season. I'd be surprised if there is an enormous amount of blowback with this."

He might be surprised, at least if immediate social media reaction is an indication. Pockets of fans are upset that players are not being forced to stand. Others are furious that the league is putting any restrictions on players' behavior during the anthem.

In that way, at least, this policy might wind up being an apt reflection of the issue and the league's unwanted spot in this sliver of the national discourse -- driven by emotion and unlikely to make anyone entirely happy.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista

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