Right groups, fans, sports analysts and players have hit back at the National Football League’s (NFL) decision to fine teams if their players refused to stand for the pre-game US national anthem, renewing debate over racial injustice and the right to protest in the country.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced a new policy on Wednesday that no longer requires players to be present on field during the Star-Spangled Banner, but teams will be fined an undisclosed amount if its members sat down or kneeled in protest.
“Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed,” Goodell said in a statement, introducing the new rules.
NFL players started kneeling and raising fists during the national anthem last year to protest police brutality, including the killings of unarmed African Americans.
Goodell said team owners, with the exception of Jed York of the San Francisco 49ers, unanimously approved the new provisions, but the player’s union said it was not consulted.
“I think our clubs all see this the same way – we want our players to stand, we’re going to encourage them to stand and we’re going to continue to work on these issues in the community,” Goodell said.
But rights groups and many on social media call the new rule “dangerous and un-American”.
Nearly two years ago, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked a wave of protests in the US against racial injustice when he started taking a knee during the pre-game US national anthem.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” the biracial athlete from Wisconsin, said at the time.
The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database counted more than 980 people killed by police in 2017. The Guardian documented more than 1,090 police killings the previous year. Nearly a quarter of those killed in 2016 were African American, although the group accounts for roughly 12 percent of the total US population.
Since opting out of his contract with San Francisco for the 2017 season, the 30-year-old free agent has failed to land a contract with any team.
“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick said.
Over recent years, attendance at NFL games and TV ratings have fallen, with some suggesting the protests have contributed to the negative trend.
Exavier Pope, a sports legal analyst, said the NFL is making a “big gamble” with its latest decision.
“The National Football League thinks that they are not going to get much brushback from players in terms of making this decision and I think this is a miscalculation by the NFL,” he told Al Jazeera, via Skype from Chicago.
“What is it going to look like on Sunday for the National Football League when during the national anthem, the sidelines are empty,” Pope added.
Instead of coming together to address an issue disproportionately plaguing the African American, the NFL owners have chosen to bury their heads and silence players
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) condemned the American football league for not addressing the root cause of the problem.
“Protest is an American tradition; by protesting we work to hold our country accountable to its highest ideals,” the NAACP said in a statement to the Hill.
“Instead of coming together to address an issue disproportionately plaguing the African American, the NFL owners have chosen to bury their heads and silence players,” the rights group added.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) started a petition, calling on the NFL to respect its players’ voices and rescind the new policy.
“Telling peaceful protesters to leave and do it behind closed doors is dangerous and un-American,” the non-profit organisation said on Twitter.
The NFL players’ protests have never been about the military or the flag. They’re about police brutality and white supremacy. Failing to protest injustice in America is not patriotic, it’s dangerous. #TakeAKnee
— ACLU (@ACLU) May 23, 2018
“Respect and love for America doesn’t require blindness to America’s failure to honour its promise of racial justice and equality – failures that are made even more evident each time the police murder a person of colour and get away with it,” ACLU said in a statement.
US President Donald Trump has been a strong critic of the national anthem protests, often accusing players who take part as unpatriotic. He has yet to comment on the new policy.
The league’s decision has sparked a social media storm, with many on Twitter criticising the new rules.
Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive end Chris Long said: “This is fear of diminished bottom line. It’s also a fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don’t get confused.”
Many fans expressed their disappointment with the NFL policy, with one Twitter user calling it a “violation of free speech”.
The @NFL decision is not only a violation of free speech but also a sign of overt racism and hypocrisy. White nationalists can march on city streets & college campuses, exercising rights to spew hate but Black athletes can’t protest police violence & anti-blackness.
— Prudence Carter (@prudencelcarter) May 24, 2018
New ending for the National Anthem played at #NFL games:
O'er the land of the formerly free and the home of the corporate slave.
— Rube Bait (@RubeBait) May 24, 2018
Arguing NFL players should stay in the locker room if they don't stand during the national anthem is like saying black people should walk if they don't sit in the back of the bus.
— Alamo_on_the_rise 🆘🍑 (@AlamoOnTheRise) May 24, 2018
Imagine if female athletes took a knee against rape culture and were told by their male bosses and "fans" that it was disrespectful to the flag. What would that say about the flag then? Same as the NFL is saying now.
— Tuxedo Mask (@TheLoveBel0w) May 24, 2018