Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones backed the NFL into a corner.
Now league owners will meet to rule – maybe once and for all – what freedoms can or can’t be expressed during the playing of the national anthem on game day.
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said Tuesday that team owners will discuss anthem rules in the league’s fall meeting in New York next week, all in hopes of getting “back to football” and bringing some closure to a political Pandora’s box that has devoured headlines in the 2017 season.
“They will have a chance to – all of them – discuss this issue, to look at the policy and look at ideas if there is a need to change the policies,” Lockhart said. “I fully expect this to be front and center on the agenda.”
In a memo circulated among all 32 teams, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed a strong desire to move past the controversy. He also advocated that players stand during the anthem, saying, “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”
This comes in the wake of Trump continuing to bang the drum about protests in the NFL, and the staged walkout at an Indianapolis Colts game by Vice President Mike Pence this past weekend. But it was Jones who provided the latest flashpoint in the fire, stating on Sunday night that his players would “not play” if they “disrespected” the flag during the pregame anthem.
“If there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” Jones said Sunday night. “OK? Understand? If we are disrespecting the flag, then we won’t play. Period. … There is no room here – if it comes between looking non-supportive of our players and of each other or creating the impression that you’re disrespecting the flag, we will be non-supportive of each other. We will not disrespect the flag.”
During his comments, Jones also cited a portion of the NFL’s game operations manual, which is considered the “bible” by teams when it comes to game day procedures. Specifically, a line in the manual that dictates players “should” stand during the anthem. That word has raised a debate over whether “should” means “must,” and thus becomes a directive that can result in discipline if broken.
The manual states, “During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking.”
Lockhart declined to say whether the league’s stance on anthem protests is aligned with Trump and Jones, but he indicated that as the rule is written, the NFL believes there is latitude for some retribution for protests during the playing of the anthem amid the display of the American flag.
“The manual is clear when it says the players should stand for the anthem,” Lockhart said. “That manual governs the issues around the anthem for the entire league – for the 32 clubs. To date, there hasn’t been discipline for those who have chosen not to stand.”
Despite this assertion, Lockhart would not definitively declare that NFL teams can punish players for pregame protests. Instead, he pointed to next week’s owners’ meetings in New York, and the hope that resounding clarity will be reached on an issue that has defined this season.