How The NFL's New Rule On Protesting Is Being Perceived By Players

May 28, 2018
Originally published on May 27, 2018 2:18 pm

The NFL announced a new rule banning players from kneeling in protest during the playing of the national anthem before games. If they choose not to stand, they can stay in the locker room, but if they violate the new rule, their teams will be fined.

The policy decision comes after months of controversy and divisive debates on players taking a knee or making other statements as the national anthem is played.

During the preseason in August 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. He was, at first, alone in his protest, but continued it into the regular season as countless others joined him.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in August 2016. " "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

More than a year after Kaepernick's original protests, President Trump expressed his disapproval on Twitter and at rallies, which sparked larger and more united protests among players and at times, entire teams.

Until the announcement on Wednesday of the new policy, the league and the players' union made no suggestions that such a change was coming.

Since the announcement, Howard Bryant, sports journalist and author of The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, spoke with NPR's Weekend Edition about the reactions he's heard from players and what might happen before the official start of next season.

"Well I think they've taken the position that the NFL has decided to fully engage with this culture war initiated by the president," Bryant says. "When [President Trump] first attacked the NFL players in September, one of the questions of the book that I was asking was 'Who gets to be the patriot?' "

When the president began commenting on the players' protests he called them "unpatriotic," Bryant says. Trump then said players choosing to take a knee or sit during the national anthem shouldn't have jobs.

Since then Trump has praised the new rule announcement, but questioned whether those who don't stand for the anthem should be allowed to stay in the U.S.

"Well, I think that's good," Trump said in an interview with Fox News. "I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still I think it's good. You have to stand, proudly, for the national anthem or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there, maybe you shouldn't be in the country."

Bryant says the new rule makes it appear "that the NFL is going along with it as well. I think that this has really reignited some really bad blood between the players and the owners."

That "bad blood" comes after many players thought they had reached an agreement on the matter last season.

"They had agreed with the owners to a $90 million partnership to fight social [injustice], so I think that they had believed that they had reached an accommodation," Bryant says. "Now we're seeing that that accommodation isn't such an accommodation and I think the players are trying to strategize with their union to figure out just what's going to happen."

This latest move by the league, Bryant says, "is seen as a hostile act by the players. There's no question about that."

Even with the new rule, the debate on the issue is not over as many continue to debate what it is the players are protesting when they take a knee.

Bryant says players have said they are protesting police brutality, but others see this as an issue of respect for veterans and those who have served the country.

"Nobody wants to see the flag or the national anthem weaponized," Bryant says. "They don't want to see citizenship weaponized and the veterans that I've spoken with do not want to be used as commercial props and yet sports is doing both."

The phrase "weaponizing patriotism" has been used frequently in this debate. Bryant says the players "do not want their citizenship questioned," and that "what they're doing in this protest is the ultimate example of citizenship."

It is how those protests are framed, Bryant says, that begin to weaponize patriotism.

"What we've seen in sports over the last couple of years now is to paint the players as unpatriotic," he says. "Instead of thinking about their reasoning — which is police misconduct and about supporting some of the people who don't have a lot of power in our country — it's been directed toward the flag as if the players don't care about their country when actually, they do."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The NFL this past week announced a ban on players kneeling in protest during the playing of the national anthem. If they choose not to stand, players may stay in the locker room. But if they violate the new rule, the team will be fined. Let's bring in Howard Bryant, author of the book "The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, And The Politics Of Patriotism." Thanks for joining us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Hi, Lulu. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm good. How are the players that you're talking to reacting to the stand that the NFL's taken?

BRYANT: Well, I think they've taken the position that the NFL has decided to fully engage with this culture war initiated by the president when he first attacked the NFL players back in September. One of the questions of the book that I was asking is, who gets to be the patriot? And when the president first called the players unpatriotic, then said that they shouldn't have jobs, now he's even saying that dissenting players maybe shouldn't even be in the country. And that the NFL is going along with it, as well, I think this has really reignited some really bad blood between the players and the owners.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how is that manifesting itself? I mean, what conversations are the players having, and what can they actually do?

BRYANT: I think that the players believed after Colin Kaepernick wasn't signed last season that they had still reached some sort of...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Kaepernick, of course, started this whole taking the knee.

BRYANT: Back in 2016. That's right. And that they had agreed with the owners to then a $90 million partnership to fight social justice. So I think they had believed that they had reached an accommodation. Now we're seeing that that accommodation isn't such an accommodation. And I think the players are trying to strategize with their union to figure out just what's going to happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hmm. That looks like it's setting up a real confrontation between primarily, you know, African-American players and - the owners of these teams are white, predominantly, which is really the dynamic that's at play here. I mean, do you think that that's at the heart of this, that these owners and these players just see things fundamentally differently?

BRYANT: Well, it is seen as a hostile act by the players. There's no question about that. But one of the things, Lulu, that does get me about this is that we talk so much about division, but one of the things that has been very clear - one of the unifying themes - is the fact that none of the veterans that this is supposedly about - even though the players are fighting against police brutality - nobody wants to see the flag or the national anthem weaponized. They don't want to see citizenship weaponized. And the veterans that I've spoken with do not want to be used as commercial props. And yet sports is doing both. And so it's sort of ironic in a way that all of this patriotism and nationalism was supposedly brought to bring people together post-9/11, and it's been the most divisive thing in America, which is a very strange thing to be talking about on Memorial Day weekend.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you explain that term weaponizing patriotism? Because it's come up a lot, and you just used it again. What should we understand when we hear that?

BRYANT: Well, I think the players do not want their citizenship questioned. What they're doing in this protest is the ultimate example of citizenship. But instead, what we've seen in sports over the last couple of years now is to paint the players as unpatriotic instead of thinking about their reasoning, which is police misconduct and about supporting some of the people who don't have a lot of power in our country. It's been directed toward the flag as if the players don't care about their country when, actually, they do. For how many decades did we say that we were tired of these athletes being so rich and so detached? Now they're involved, and we're calling them unpatriotic. That's one of the great collisions about this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Howard Bryant, author of "The Heritage" and senior writer for espn.com and ESPN The Magazine. Thank you so much.

BRYANT: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.