NEW YORK (Reuters) – The National Football League will fine teams if players on the field refuse to stand for the national anthem, the league said on Wednesday in a victory for U.S. President Donald Trump, who loudly demanded an end to such protests last year.
Some NFL players knelt during the anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men, sparking a controversy as Trump criticized the players for being unpatriotic.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday announced a new policy that will fine teams if players on the field fail to stand during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Players who choose not to stand may now remain in the locker room until after the anthem is finished.
The NFL Players Association criticized the new policy, saying it was not consulted and that it may issue a challenge should it violate the collective bargaining agreement.
“The vote by the 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 the league,” the players’ union said.
The kneeling controversy rattled a $14 billion industry, and the new policy attempts to resolve a distraction for the owners, said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising.
“For advertisers, football’s still a great buy, reaching a market – young males mostly. Ratings have dipped a little bit,” Dorfman said, adding the NFL is “still one of the strongest live events you can buy in television.”
The protests, in a league where African-Americans make up the majority of players, continued for much of the past season, with some players kneeling when the anthem was played and others standing arm-in-arm in solidarity.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the protests in 2016, and when he was shunned by all 32 teams in the league, going unsigned for the entire 2017 season, players and commentators questioned whether he was being blackballed by the owners.
He has filed a grievance against the league.
The protests started to fizzle late in the season when the NFL said it would donate $89 million over seven years to social justice causes.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
The NFL last year rejected Trump’s calls to punish players who protest, but said the league’s players “should” stand during the anthem.
Goodell, in Wednesday’s statement, defended the patriotism of NFL players.
“It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case,” the commissioner said.
The players’ union also said 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.”
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; additional reporting by Andrew Both; editing by G Crosse