Los Angeles: National Football League owners agreed a new policy on Wednesday that players must stand during the National Anthem or incur fines for their clubs, unless they stay in the locker room.
The issue of how to handle player protests of kneeling during the pre-game playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has loomed over the NFL club owners meeting in Atlanta, with the sport anxious to avoid a repeat of the controversy that divided the league last season.
America's most popular sport found itself at the center of a political firestorm in 2017 after President Donald Trump described players who kneeled during the anthem to draw attention to racial injustice as "sons of bitches" who were insulting the flag and the nation.
The remarks prompted a wave of kneeling protests across the league in September, angering some fans and placing several conservative, Trump-supporting team owners in an awkward position as NFL television ratings dropped.
Vice President Mike Pence, who walked out on an NFL game in Indianapolis after some players kneeled for the anthem, tweeted a headline of the NFL announcement Wednesday under the hashtag "Winning" and an American flag. Trump later retweeted the message.
With the NFL's leadership reluctant to issue a blanket decree ordering players to stand for the anthem, the deal approved Wednesday represents a compromise.
Under current NFL regulations, all players are required to be on the field during the anthem. The new policy removes that requirement, allowing players who do not wish to stand to remain in the locker room.
Players who do come onto the field for the anthems would be required to stand or teams would be fined.
"This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
"Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed."
Goodell said the NFL would levy fines against teams if players came onto the field and did not stand for the anthem, with teams deciding what punishment if any to pass along to kneeling players.
"If anyone is on the field and is disrespectful to the anthem or the flag, there will be a fine from the league against the team," Goodell told reporters. "The team will have its own rules and make their own decisions."
Goodell took issue with criticism levied at protesting players being called "unpatriotic."
"It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic," Goodell said. "This is not and was never the case."
Art Rooney II, the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said the policy was the result of extensive consultation.
"We're not forcing anybody to stand who doesn't feel like it," Rooney said. "But those that are on the field are going to be asked to stand.
"We've listened to a lot of different viewpoints including our fans over the past year and this policy is an attempt to get to a place where we have respected everybody's point of view as best as we could."
Union could challenge
The NFL Players Association, which was not included in league discussions on how to handle the anthem issue, threatened to challenge the policy if it was deemed a violation of its agreement with the league.
"The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new 'policy,'" the players union said in a statement.
"The vote by NFL 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 our league.
"Our union will review the new 'policy' and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement."
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the protests in 2016 as a way of drawing attention to police brutality, social injustice and racial inequity.
Kaepernick's protest followed a wave of deaths involving black men during confrontations with law enforcement.
In 2017, Kaepernick was unable to get an NFL job. Free agents Kaepernick and Eric Reid are suing the NFL, saying league owners colluded to keep them unsigned as retaliation for the protests.
Updated Date: May 24, 2018 12:12:25 IST