NFL owners have approved a policy for player conduct during the national anthem following a long-running controversy over players protesting social justice issues by kneeling for the anthem.
The new rules stipulate that players must stay in the locker room if they do not wish to stand. Players, coaches and personnel on the field must stand when the anthem is played, or will be fined and disciplined.
The decision could tee up players and owners for litigation.
Players claim they were not consulted and immediately threatened to challenge the policy. In a terse statement from the NFL Players' Association, players claimed the NFL and its owners went rogue in establishing guidelines after an effort to work together with players.
In a statement underlining that players kneeling was not a protest of the national anthem, the NFLPA said: "The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new 'policy',. NFL players have shown their patriotism through their social activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.
"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."
On the final day of league meetings in Atlanta, owners prioritised establishing team and league protocol for the national anthem, which became a polarising issue over the past two seasons due to peaceful protests started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, now out of the league.
"We are dedicated to continuing our collaboration with players to advance the goals of justice and fairness in all corners of our society," commissioner Roger Goodell said.
The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed. The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honoured to work with our players to drive progress.
"It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case."
The policy, released in full by the NFL on Wednesday, reads:
- All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.
- The Game Operations Manual will be revised to remove the requirement that all players be on the field for the Anthem.
- Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the Anthem has been performed.
- A club will be fined by the League if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.
- Each club may develop its own rules, consistent with the above principles, regarding its personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.
- The Commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.
A player choosing to kneel for the anthem would be fined. It was unclear whether players holding a fist above their head while standing during the anthem would be a fineable offence.
Dallas Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said there is no fine schedule established from the league level on anthem issues. Asked to define disrespect, he said owners would know it when they see it.
"Maybe this new rule proposal that is being voted on is a 'compromise' between the NFL office and club CEOs on various sides of the issue, but certainly not with player leadership; we weren't there or part of the discussions," wrote George Atallah, NFLPA executive director of external affairs via Twitter.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Michael Bennett, last year with the Seahawks, and Rams cornerback Marcus Peters all protested by standing with their right fist raised.
President Donald Trump caused an uproar from players in 2017 with inflammatory comments objecting to player protests during the anthem and calling them "sons of bitches".
This week, he praised NASCAR for its universal policy in which drivers and crew stand during the pre-race playing of the national anthem.
ESPN reported that owners view the policy change as compromise.
In 2017, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said in a private meeting of owners that the league does not want "inmates running the prison", a reference to players protesting. McNair apologised and in April said he regretted the apology.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last year his players "will always stand" for the national anthem. Jones pointed to concern about sponsors being turned off by anthem protests.
Kaepernick has not played since 2016 and filed a collusion case against NFL owners alleging a concerted effort was made to keep him out of football. Former teammate Eric Reid, a safety with the 49ers and unrestricted free agent, is following suit.
Reid, who joined Kaepernick in kneeling to bring attention to social injustice, visited only one team - the Cincinnati Bengals - and was asked if he would continue to kneel during the anthem by team ownership.
Kaepernick had a visit scheduled with the Seattle Seahawks - the only team to host Kaepernick in 2017 - but it was postponed because management wanted greater clarity on Kaepernick's intentions during pregame.