The ongoing NFL player protests have divided football fans. In a recent Seton Hall University poll, 84% of Americans surveyed said they support players’ right to protest — but only 35% said that not standing during the anthem is an acceptable form of protest. And 16% said they do not support the players’ right to protest.
Amidst all this controversy, a common meme has appeared on social media, typically sent by those who are against the protests: they claim there is an NFL rule stating that players must stand for the anthem.
To be clear: there is not.
Hey Dummy! The NFL has a rule that all players must stand for the anthem. Look it up.
— #ARIACFAW (@hwhtgr) September 28, 2017
There is no rule in the NFL rulebook about standing for the anthem.
There is, however, a “policy” about the anthem and the flag in the “Game Operations Manual,” a 230-page internal document (not available to the public) sent to all 32 teams each year.
You might say a “rule” and “policy” are the same thing.
But to the NFL, the distinction matters. Policies are encouraged, but not required — as opposed to rules like offensive holding or defensive pass interference, according to an NFL spokesperson. Violations of policies “may result in discipline.”
What the NFL Game Operations Manual says about the anthem
The players do not receive the manual; policies in the manual are enforced by the teams. And the language about the anthem has not changed since 1978. (Perhaps it ought to now.)
The language in the manual is as follows: “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. The home team should insure that the American Flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.”
What the NFL says about the anthem
The NFL publicly stated last season, when Colin Kaepernick’s protest began, that, “Players are strongly encouraged to stand for the anthem but we respect their right to observe the anthem in this way.” The league said it would not discipline any player that does not stand for the anthem. The league says that will not change.
The NFL spokesperson blames the ongoing confusion around this in part on a shift in 2009. Until 2009, players were always on the field for the national anthem for the daytime Sunday games, but not for the primetime (Sunday Night, Monday Night, Thursday Night) games. For those games, for TV purposes, players would come out onto the field after the anthem played.
In 2009, the NFL spokesperson says, “We decided to make it consistent across all games, as it was the right thing to do.” (Some have suggested the league could end this entire controversy by returning to the old way, where players aren’t on the field for the anthem.)
Of course, regardless of what the policy says, don’t expect people to stop insisting, on social media, that there is a rule requiring players to stand. And similarly, different polls and surveys have emerged with completely contradictory findings about the public’s feelings toward the player protests. And, as with the election cycle last year, Facebook and Twitter are rife with falsehoods, exaggerations, miscommunication, and often, literal fake news from bots or trolls.
The truth about how people feel about NFL player protests is not to be found on social media.