Players protesting systemic racial inequality in American society by kneeling during the national anthem has, if you’ve somehow missed it, been the most impactful sports issue in a very long time.
Just this weekend, the President of the United States criticized Marshawn Lynch for not standing during the anthem for a game played in Mexico City. (That Lynch stood for the Mexican anthem is absolutely perfect.)
The NFL is now stuck trying to get out of the political arena, a task made difficult by the decades the league has spent with the American flag draped around its shoulders (or, in more literal terms, on its shield.) When you unfurl a field-sized flag prior to handing the microphone to a recording artist of varying renown to belt out the national anthem, and make it a cornerstone of the Super Bowl broadcast, it’s tough to suddenly try to stick to sports.
Forcing the players to stand is likely another non-starter, for a variety of reasons. Ownership and the league office are instead turning to another possibility.
According to the Washington Post, the NFL is considering rolling back the rules to a time when teams remained in the locker room for the anthem:
Some NFL owners believe there is a strong possibility they will enact an offseason change to the league’s national anthem policy if players’ protests during the anthem persist through the end of this season, reverting to a previous approach of keeping players in the locker room while the anthem is played, according to several people familiar with the league’s inner workings.
“I think that if players are still kneeling at the end of the year, then it could very well happen,” said one person familiar with the owners’ deliberations on anthem-related issues.
That person said it was “too early to tell” for certain if the change to the anthem policy will be made by owners and the league. The person was “not sure” if a formal vote of the owners would be required to enact such a change but said, “I think most owners would support it, particularly if players continue to kneel this season.”
As the Post points out, players have only been required to be on the sideline for the anthem since 2009, so it’s not like there’s a ton of tradition at stake if the league were to mandate a return to the locker room. What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not the players would view this as any different than the league ordering them to stand throughout. Removing the platform for the protest is almost as bad, if not as bad.
It’s pretty clear the NFL isn’t learning the proper lessons from this, and it’s just as clear that the players choosing the anthem as the stage for their protest was the very best way to amplify their message, and their voices, even if things inevitably grew muddied as the movement grew and became many things to too many people.