NFL Will Likely Allow Players To Protest During National Anthem

    • NFL's stance on protests sets up potential new war around anthem with President Donald Trump.
    • Despite years of protests, no NFL players have been fined for demonstrating.

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On Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump asked if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is OK with players kneeling during the national anthem this season. 

It appears that NFL players will most likely be allowed to take a knee on the field during the presentation of the American flag and playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” according to a top league source. They won’t be fined or disciplined for demonstrating for racial justice this season, said the source.  

“We anticipate taking the same approach we’ve taken the last number of years,” the source told Front Office Sports. “No discipline will be enacted. No player has ever been fined.”

The league is working closely with the NFL Players Association on developing the anthem strategy for the upcoming 2020 season.

The NFL’s apparent defiance of the President sets up a potential rematch of the battle between Trump and the NFL that played out over the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

On June 7, Trump harkened back to his comments from September 2017, where he called on NFL owners to fire “son-of-a-bitch” players who disrespected the American flag. 

Trump’s direct attack on the league inspired hundreds of players, coaches, and even owners like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys to kneel on the field.

“Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?” Trump posted on Twitter.

Trump was responding to a video posted by the NFL on June 5 where Goodell condemned racism and encouraged peaceful protests in the wake of nationwide demonstrations surrounding the death of George Floyd in police custody.

In the video, Goodell admitted the league erred by not listening to previous player protests, which were inspired by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. However, he did not mention Kaepernick by name.

“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” said Goodell, without mentioning the anthem or flag. “We, the National Football League, believe that Black lives matter.”

Goodell broadly agreed with many of the points brought up in a previous video featuring roughly a dozen star NFL players, including the new face of the league: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

Without African American players, “there would be no National Football League,” added Goodell. Roughly 70% of NFL players are African American.

Last week, the NFL pledged to donate another $20 million to hundreds of organizations fighting “systemic racism” in the U.S. That will bring the league’s total donations to $64 million. Last year, the league also formed a partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation for social justice initiatives.

“We will accelerate efforts to highlight their critical work,” the NFL said in a statement. “We know that we can and need to do more.”

During the 2018 season, the NFL and NFLPA gave players the choice of either standing at attention during the anthem on the field or to remain in the locker room. But NFL players such as Eric Reid and Kenny Stills continued to kneel every game they suited up for over the past two seasons. Neither was fined or disciplined.

Reid, who is currently a free agent, wrote on Twitter that he doubted the league’s sincerity regarding these efforts, mainly because Kaepernick has remained unsigned.

“I have [Kaepernick’s] phone number if y’all need it! It’s time that he is employed,” Reid tweeted. “How long will the NFL say they are listening and willing to be at the forefront of change but continue to exile him for trying to do the same?! Until he’s signed, let’s call this what it is…PR.”

Former Fox Sports and ESPN media personality Jason Whitlock predicts more pro athletes will “lean into public gestures” in the wake of last week’s nationwide race protests.

“Social media will demand that they do, and they will follow orders. But I also think many athletes will involve themselves in actions behind the scenes that will promote genuine progress,” Whitlock said. “The on-field gestures will no doubt bother some traditional sports fans. Police brutality is a complex issue that cannot be improved by symbolism and gestures on a football field.” 

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While not the sole factor, the height of the player protests coincided with the league’s average TV audiences falling 8% and 10% during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, respectively, bottoming out to under 15 million viewers per game. 

As the protests faded, and new stars like Mahomes and 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens emerged, the NFL TV average audiences grew 5% the past two seasons. 

The league averaged 16.5 million viewers per game during the 2019 season, generating 47 of the top 50 most-watched shows. Fox’s late Sunday afternoon “America’s Game of the Week” was the No. 1 show on TV, while NBC “Sunday Night Football” ranked as the No. 1 show in prime time for a record 9th straight year.