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Carter: NFL continues to get handling of players' anthem protests wrong

Ravens players and coach John Harbaugh offered measured reactions to the NFL’s new national anthem policy on Thursday, saying they’re more focused on their football jobs than on the swirling political controversy involving the league and President Donald Trump. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

The NFL continues to get it wrong when it comes to its handling of the player protests during the playing of the national anthem.

Earlier this week, the league rolled out a wishy-washy new policy that no longer requires players to be on the field for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but does require those who are on the field to stand for the anthem. The policy also allows teams to fine players or other team personnel that “do not show respect” for the anthem.

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In case you’ve been living under a rock, this started in 2016 when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was seen sitting while the anthem was being played prior to the kickoff of a preseason game. When asked, Kaepernick explained he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” and that he would continue to protest until he believed the flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent.”

This touched off a firestorm of reactions from people on various sides of the coin — those who were generally supportive of Kaepernick raising awareness, others who disagreed with his assertation that black people were being oppressed, still others who thought he was being disrespectful of military veterans and our nation’s symbolism, and those who just wanted politics out of their football.

Kaepernick became a free agent after that season and while several teams flirted with the idea of signing him — including, infamously, the Baltimore Ravens — he remains unsigned. He has since filed a grievance against the league, alleging team owners colluded to blackball him from the NFL.

While some employed players continued to kneel, link arms or raise fists during the anthem, the issue had largely died down until last September, right before the league’s slate of week 3 games, when President Donald Trump sent out multiple tweets advocating that NFL players be fired of suspended if they failed to stand up for the anthem.

Teams reacted in myraid ways. A group of players on the Ravens, playing a game on foreign soil in London, opted to kneel during the anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers opted to stay in the tunnel from the teams’ locker room during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Dallas Cowboys, including owner Jerry Jones, kneeled together before the anthem, then rose and stood while it played.

The backlash from these demonstrations became part of the 2017 season narrative, with many fans expressing their displeasure, and multiple debates over whether the player protests directly contributed to the NFL’s sagging TV ratings and empty seats in stadiums.

In the months since the season ended, there had been little talk about the protests until the league’s announcement this week, coincidentally, perhaps, on the cusp of Memorial Day weekend. The new policy will undoubtedly be the talk of many people at weekend parties and cookouts.

The NFL’s owners were probably just trying to get politics out of football with the new policy. And as a person who loves football and hates politics, I can certainly appreciate that.

Instead, the new policy seems to have angered members of the fan base who didn’t tune out last year, but now feel the league is kowtowing to fake patriotism, since the original protests were never about being disrespectful to the country or the military, but rather raising awareness to an issue that continues to be a problem. (Just do a Google search for the video of Milwalkee Bucks’ Sterling Brown’s interaction with police.)

Meanwhile, by offering players an out to stay off the field and not forcing them to stand for the anthem, the NFL likely won’t win back many fans it lost a year ago.

The NFL’s owners could’ve gone a number of other routes. For one, had they not rekindled the issue, it may very likely have burned out by the time the next season started in the fall.

Or, the NFL could’ve reverted to how it handled the anthem over a decade ago. Prior to 2009, it wasn’t standard practice for teams to be on the field for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Or, it could’ve, like the NBA, adopted a policy that players must stand for the anthem — period — but also taken a page of National Basketball Association’s playbook where the league and teams actually works with its players to help them address controversial issues affecting their communities and, in the words of a memo sent from league commissioner Adam Silver, “help you figure out the most meaningful way to make that difference.”

That, in my opinion, would’ve been the best option — lifting players’ voices on societal issues while simultaneously showing respect for the flag, the anthem, our country and our veterans. Instead, the NFL opted for the exact opposite.

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Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a league that can’t even accurately define what constitutes a catch in its game continues to get this issue so wrong.

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