The NFL Is So Scared of Trump That It Now Will Fine Teams If Players Don’t Stand for the Anthem

“All league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.”

Former San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem in September 2016. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

At their spring meeting on Wednesday, NFL owners caved to President Donald Trump’s relentless criticism of players protesting racial inequality and police brutality during the national anthem, approving a new policy to fine teams if players or staff refuse to “stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”

According to a new rule unanimously approved by owners (San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York abstained from voting)*, team personnel are no longer required to stand on the field during the national anthem. In other words, the league would like players who plan to protest to do so in the locker room, out of sight—or else likely face the backlash from their organizations.

“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. He noted: “It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.”

The league’s new rule is aimed at stopping a movement that began with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016. Kaepernick’s silent kneeling during the anthem set off a wave of demonstrations and activism among players and drew the ire of the president, who criticized owners for not punishing players.

At a league meeting in October, owners seemed hellbent on figuring out how to prevent Trump from blasting the league again. “The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission that I don’t feel is in the best interests of America,” said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, according to audio obtained by the New York Times. Kraft, whose Kraft Group contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, called the president’s rhetoric “divisive” and “horrible.” 

The new policy allows teams to come up with their own rules for players who fail to comply, leaving open the possibility that teams could fine players, coaches, and other personnel for not abiding by the rule. At least one owner, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Art Rooney II, says he thought that other types of protests, like raised fists or linked arms, could also fall under the league’s new policy.

The NFL players’ union noted in a statement that it wasn’t consulted before the policy was put into place, and that it would “challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence, who left an Indianapolis Colts game last season after players knelt during the national anthem, took some time out of his day to weigh in on Twitter.  

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the vote count. San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York abstained from voting.