After season of player protests, NFL approves new policy to stop kneeling during national anthem

After an NFL season rife with controversy over player protests, league owners on Wednesday approved a new policy that will allow players to remain in the locker room during the national anthem but require those who are on the sidelines to stand.

Under the policy, a team will be fined if players or league personnel are on the field and do not stand “and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” Teams can also decide how to penalize those who do not stand.

“It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “This is not and was never the case.

“We believe today’s decision will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it.”

The previous policy required players to be on the sidelines for the anthem, and recommended but did not require that they stand for the anthem.

George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association, said players were not consulted in the formulation of the new policy. He said his organization will review it.

"If there are changes to the policy that put players in a position where they could be disciplined or fined, we are going to do what we always do — fight anything that encroaches on players' rights to the end," Atallah said.

Kevin Byrne, the Ravens executive vice president for public and community relations, said the team wouldn't be commenting on the new policy. The NFL said it was approved unanimously at the annual spring league meeting in Atlanta.

San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York said Wednesday he abstained from the anthem vote because he thinks a deeper look at the issue is required. New York Jets chairman and acting owner Christopher Johnson said his players who protest during the anthem won’t face fines, suspensions or any repercussions from the team, according to a report.

Players refusing to stand for the anthem has polarized fans and others since 2016, when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began doing it to protest the treatment of African-Americans in the United States. Players around the league followed his example.

The Ravens were one of the first teams to see players kneel in protest last season. About a dozen Ravens, along with franchise icon Ray Lewis, knelt during the anthem before the team's game in London against the Jacksonville Jaguars last September.

That protest came a day after President Donald Trump blasted players who didn't stand for the anthem, and encouraged team owners to fire them.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti released a statement supporting his players. The protest wasn't well received by a significant number of Ravens fans.

“I think they [players] have the right to protest, but not during the national anthem,” said Jim Daly, 70, of Catonsville. “I think kneeling during the national anthem is totally inappropriate. The players should be standing.”

At the Ravens’ next home game, against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, players and coaches knelt in prayer before the anthem, drawing loud boos from the home crowd. But everyone on the Ravens’ sideline was standing by the time the anthem began.

No Ravens players or coaches knelt during the anthem for the rest of the season.

In a letter to season-ticket holders late in the regular season, team president Dick Cass said the anthem protest in London was a factor in the number of empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium during 2017 home games.

Navy veteran Dan Gilmore said the NFL’s stance against kneeling doesn’t mix with his version of patriotism.

“I wouldn’t personally kneel, but I support their right to do it,” the 44-year-old Gilmore said. “[Veterans], we’re not protecting an item or a song, but the values and the rights to freedom of speech.”

Gilmore, a contract web developer for the federal government, isn’t turning his TV off on Sundays, nor is he staying away from M&T Bank Stadium. He has tickets for the opener against the Buffalo Bills.

Kaepernick, who was released by the 49ers after the 2016 season and remains unsigned, has filed a lawsuit accusing teams of colluding to ban him from the league.

Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson said Wednesday that he’d like to see fans continue to boycott a league that “proves more and more that it could care less about the lives of black people.”

“The thrust of Colin’s suit alleging collusion amongst owners was that they were not operating in good faith and that there was a deep divide between their seeming public commitment to social justice and the policies and practices they’d employ,” Mckesson said in a text. “The NFL did a whole media tour trying to convince America that they believed in social justice.

“And here we are.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Katherine Fominykh and Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Farmer contributed to this article.

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