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How The NFL's New Rule On Protesting Is Being Perceived By Players

Houston Texans players kneel during the singing of the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Houston Texans players kneel during the singing of the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks.

The NFL announced a new rule banning players from kneeling in protest during the playing of the national anthem before games. If they choose not to stand, they can stay in the locker room, but if they violate the new rule, their teams will be fined.

The policy decision comes after months of controversy and divisive debates on players taking a knee or making other statements as the national anthem is played.

During the preseason in August 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. He was, at first, alone in his protest, but continued it into the regular season as countless others joined him.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in August 2016. " "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

More than a year after Kaepernick's original protests, President Trump expressed his disapproval on Twitter and at rallies, which sparked larger and more united protests among players and at times, entire teams.

Until the announcement on Wednesday of the new policy, the league and the players' union made no suggestions that such a change was coming.

Since the announcement, Howard Bryant, sports journalist and author of The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, spoke with NPR's Weekend Editionabout the reactions he's heard from players and what might happen before the official start of next season.

"Well I think they've taken the position that the NFL has decided to fully engage with this culture war initiated by the president," Bryant says. "When [President Trump] first attacked the NFL players in September, one of the questions of the book that I was asking was 'Who gets to be the patriot?' "

When the president began commenting on the players' protests he called them "unpatriotic," Bryant says. Trump then said players choosing to take a knee or sit during the national anthem shouldn't have jobs.

Since then Trump has praised the new rule announcement, but questioned whether those who don't stand for the anthem should be allowed to stay in the U.S.

"Well, I think that's good," Trump said in an interview with Fox News. "I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still I think it's good. You have to stand, proudly, for the national anthem or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there, maybe you shouldn't be in the country."

Bryant says the new rule makes it appear "that the NFL is going along with it as well. I think that this has really reignited some really bad blood between the players and the owners."

That "bad blood" comes after many players thought they had reached an agreement on the matter last season.

"They had agreed with the owners to a $90 million partnership to fight social [injustice], so I think that they had believed that they had reached an accommodation," Bryant says. "Now we're seeing that that accommodation isn't such an accommodation and I think the players are trying to strategize with their union to figure out just what's going to happen."

This latest move by the league, Bryant says, "is seen as a hostile act by the players. There's no question about that."

Even with the new rule, the debate on the issue is not over as many continue to debate what it is the players are protesting when they take a knee.

Bryant says players have said they are protesting police brutality, but others see this as an issue of respect for veterans and those who have served the country.

"Nobody wants to see the flag or the national anthem weaponized," Bryant says. "They don't want to see citizenship weaponized and the veterans that I've spoken with do not want to be used as commercial props and yet sports is doing both."

The phrase "weaponizing patriotism" has been used frequently in this debate. Bryant says the players "do not want their citizenship questioned," and that "what they're doing in this protest is the ultimate example of citizenship."

It is how those protests are framed, Bryant says, that begin to weaponize patriotism.

"What we've seen in sports over the last couple of years now is to paint the players as unpatriotic," he says. "Instead of thinking about their reasoning — which is police misconduct and about supporting some of the people who don't have a lot of power in our country — it's been directed toward the flag as if the players don't care about their country when actually, they do."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.