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The NFL just handed Donald Trump a huge win

Daniel Roberts

In a move sure to fuel further controversy, NFL team owners on Wednesday agreed to a new policy regarding players who kneel in protest during the national anthem: The league will now fine teams whose players do not stand for the anthem.

It is an outcome likely to please President Trump, who has vocally demanded for the past nine months that there be some kind of punishment for players who kneel. His crusade began a year ago when he first said, at a September 2017 event in Alabama, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'”

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem in September 2016, originally as a way to bring attention to police brutality toward African-Americans. Once Trump began vociferously criticizing the protests, some felt the kneeling took on a different purpose: protesting Trump.

As NFL veteran Martellus Bennett told Yahoo Finance last month, “A lot of guys jumped into the kneeling thing because of [Trump]… By doing so, though, it lost a lot of the identity of what it was, because now it becomes resistance toward the president, and not resistance toward police brutality and the unethical things going around in the world. So the messaging got switched. And that was a great ploy by the president to flip the message.”

The kneeling issue proved politically divisive, and inarguably hurt the NFL’s business: primetime television ratings for the NFL declined by nearly 10% on average last season. That was likely due to many different factors, but many fans claimed they stopped watching because of the protests.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, safety Eric Reid, and linebacker Eli Harold of the San Francisco 49ers kneel before a game against the New Orleans Saints in Santa Clara, Calif on Nov. 6, 2016. (AFP Photo/BRIAN BAHR)
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, safety Eric Reid, and linebacker Eli Harold of the San Francisco 49ers kneel before a game against the New Orleans Saints in Santa Clara, Calif on Nov. 6, 2016. (AFP Photo/BRIAN BAHR)

The new policy is an apparent reversal from the league’s public position last season, which was to encourage players to stand, but not punish players or their teams if players kneeled. The precise language in the league’s “Game Operations Manual” is as follows (bolding is ours): “The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem. During the playing of the National Anthem, players on the field should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. Players in the bench areas should do the same, and should line themselves up evenly along the sidelines.” Note the language choice: “should,” but not “must.”

Now NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in his statement on Wednesday, has changed his tune: “This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed.” Note the language shift: from “should” to “shall.”

There are two crucial nuances to the new policy: it applies to all team personnel, not just players; and personnel can now choose to remain in the locker room until the anthem is finished.

But if they’re on the field for the anthem, they must stand, or their team gets fined. They also must “show respect for the flag and the anthem,” a clause sure to become contentious. (Would standing with a raised fist trigger a fine?)

The league’s statement does not specify how much money the teams with kneeling players will be fined. The language only says: “A club will be fined by the League if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”

Vice President Mike Pence celebrated the new policy with a one-word tweet: “#Winning.”

The NFL Players Association feels differently.

In a heated statement (bolding is ours), the NFLPA responded: “The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new ‘policy.’ 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 vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the NFL’s Management Council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our League. Our union will review the new ‘policy’ and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”

The NFL’s surprising new policy is the topic of discussion on our Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast this week. You can listen here:

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. He hosts the podcast Sportsbook and the video series Business + Coffee. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

Trump is putting NFL owners in a corner

‘It was never about the flag’: NFL veteran Martellus Bennett on kneeling

How NFL sponsors are responding to Trump’s national anthem crusade

Donald Trump’s war on the NFL dates back to 1986