By Mark Maske and Des Bieler
The NFL halted implementation of its new national anthem policy under an agreement with the NFL Players Association.
The sides announced the deal Thursday night. The agreement also keeps the grievance filed by the NFLPA over the anthem policy, ratified by the NFL owners at their May meeting in Atlanta, from moving forward, at least temporarily.
“Everything is on hold,” said one person familiar with the situation, confirming that both implementation of the anthem policy by the league and the union’s grievance are included in that.
The league and union said in a joint written statement: “The NFL and NFLPA, through recent discussions, have been working on a resolution to the anthem issue. In order to allow this constructive dialogue to continue, we have come to a standstill agreement on the NFLPA’s grievance and on the NFL’s anthem policy. No new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks while these confidential discussions are ongoing.”
The new anthem policy leaves it up to each team whether a player would be disciplined for a protest during the anthem. The policy says that a team will be fined by the league for any protest by its players. It gives players the option to remain in the locker room during the anthem but says any player who is on the field is expected to stand for the anthem.
For now, at least, that new policy is on hold. The NFL’s previous anthem policy, included in its game operations manual, required players to be on the sideline for the anthem. It suggested players stand for the anthem but did not require them to do so.
That previous policy presumably goes back into effect, pending a resolution by the league and the union in coming weeks. NFL teams have begun reporting to training camps, and the preseason begins Aug. 2. The regular season begins Sept. 6.
The NFL’s approach to the anthem and the player protests remained engulfed by controversy since the owners’ attempt in May to put the issues to rest.
Earlier Thursday, the Miami Dolphins left open the possibility that a player of theirs could be subject to a suspension of four games without pay for conduct detrimental to the team for protesting during the anthem.
The Dolphins were not committing themselves to any particular penalty for a player who protests during the anthem, according to a person familiar with the team’s planning, who added: “We will address this issue once the season starts. All options are still open.”
According to that person, teams were required to submit their anthem-related rules to the league before their players reported to training camp.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, the maximum penalty that a team can assess for conduct detrimental to the club is a four-game suspension without pay. The Dolphins thus classified a protest by a player during the anthem as conduct detrimental to the team and outlined the maximum possible penalty.
Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey told CNN at an NFL promotional event in London this week that he was prepared to protest during the anthem and accept any fine imposed on him this coming season.
A Titans official said Thursday that the team wanted to speak with the three-time Pro Bowler when he returned from England. “We think there may be some misunderstanding on his part, because the new league policy does not provide anywhere that fines are made against players,” Titans President and CEO Steve Underwood told the Tennessean.
Owners said in May that they wanted to stop players’ protests during the anthem while providing the option for any player who did not wish to stand for the anthem to remain in the locker room.
“Those who are not comfortable standing for the anthem have the right to stay off the field,” Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II said at the conclusion of the May meeting in Atlanta. “We’re not forcing anybody to stand who doesn’t feel that that’s within the way they feel about particular subjects. But those that are on the field are going to be asked to stand. We’ve listened to a lot of different viewpoints, including our fans, over the last year. I think this policy is meant to come out at a place where we’re respecting everybody’s point of view on this as best we could.”
The NFLPA immediately objected to the league’s ratification of the new policy, saying it had not been consulted and that the players’ right to protest during the anthem previously had been affirmed by the league.
New York Jets Chairman Christopher Johnson told Newsday in May that his team would not discipline a player who protests during the anthem.
The union was leaving open the possibility of taking legal action against the new policy in addition to its grievance.
“The NFL and NFLPA reflect the great values of America, which are repeatedly demonstrated by the many players doing extraordinary work in communities across our country to promote equality, fairness and justice,” the league and union said in Thursday’s joint statement. “Our shared focus will remain on finding a solution to the anthem issue through mutual, good faith commitments, outside of litigation.”
The players’ protest movement began in 2016 when quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the anthem. Kaepernick said he was protesting racial inequality and police mistreatment of minorities.
The protests continued last season with Kaepernick out of the league after he went unsigned as a free agent. The national debate over the protests and the NFL’s response to them intensified after President Donald Trump suggested last fall that owners should fire any player who protests during the anthem.
Kaepernick and former 49ers safety Eric Reid have filed grievances accusing teams of colluding to keep them out of the league in response to their protests.
Wide receiver Kenny Stills has been among a handful of Dolphins players to kneel during the anthem, and he said in May after the policy was announced that he wasn’t sure if he would continue doing so.
Stills bemoaned at the time how “the message has been changed” from the players’ emphasis on issues of racial injustice to polarizing discussions of their patriotism, or alleged lack thereof.
“I just feel like from the beginning, if the narrative would have been set one way and the league would have had our backs and really put the message out there the right way, and tried to educate people on the work that we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Stills said, “we might be in a different place than we are right now.”