Trump's NFL? New Dictates Show How Slippery a Slope League's Anthem Policy Is

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 5, 2018

Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz center, listens to the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Michael Perez/Associated Press

No Philadelphia Eagles player knelt or remained in the locker room during the national anthem last year.

That fact needs to be emphasized, reinforced and restated as often as possible in the hours and days to come. Already, the President of the United States and his staunchest supporters are implying they did. Already, major news outlets have repurposed images of Eagles players kneeling in prayer to confuse the matter.

Facts are important. Whatever you think of kneeling in protest during the anthem, the fact remains that no Eagles ever did so. None of them.

But the president's new NFL anthem policy doesn't really have anything to do with the Eagles. It barely has anything to do with the anthem.

It's about control. The NFL ceded it. The White House seized it.

Someone at the White House is aware that no Eagles did the things they are accused of doing. That's why Monday's official statement from the White House Press Secretary disinviting them from Tuesday's traditional post-Super Bowl meeting with the president claims the Eagles "disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country."

With that statement, the president wasn't only using a gotcha technicality on the Eagles (many players did indeed lock arms and raise fists to bring attention to social causes) and inferring that they somehow protested his policy or the military (not issues like police brutality and prison reform)—he was also dictating a whole new policy to the NFL.

A Tuesday morning series of tweets clarified the president's position on how the NFL will be expected to proceed. "Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!" he wrote in one tweet. "NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!" he added in another. The president yoked other sports to his new dictates during his tweetstorm in a way that suggested he was marginalizing the Eagles and NFL. Meanwhile, the White House prepared to hold its own Super Bowl ceremony without any Super Bowl participants Tuesday afternoon in what promised to be an odd celebration of symbolic patriotism and itself.

The NFL's "compromise" on anthem protests, reached late last month in some star chamber session during the owners' meetings, stipulates that players on the field must stand and "show respect," giving them the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer. There's no mention in the NFL's policy of "hand on heart," and allowing players to remain in the locker room was the closest the NFL came to a concession to the rights and feelings of players.

The owners left big gaps in the policy with their vague, weaselly wording. The president just granted himself the authority to fill those gaps and then some.

Susan Walsh/Associated Press

The NFL's anthem compromise was bad policy from the moment it was ratified. It was ambiguous and cowardly. It was decided upon without regard to stakeholders, from the NFLPA to stadium lease holders. It tossed lighter fluid on a fire that was about to die out on its own.

Worst of all, it was an attempt to reason with an unreasonable individual. Owners ratified the policy with the president's penchant for rabble-rousing in mind. The NFL thought its new policy would prevent exactly what is currently happening.

Instead, the NFL signaled to the president that it is frightened of him, easily cowed by his pronouncements, and too disorganized and feeble to exert itself with a clear, bold policy of its own.

So the White House has now imposed its own version of appropriate anthem behavior on the NFL and will see how the league reacts.

The NFL should be terrified of the power it just handed over. We should all be.

Think about the language of "hand on heart" for a moment. Yes, most of us remove our hats and place our hands on our hearts during the national anthem. But it was never a patriotism requirement for the average citizen waiting for a ballgame to start.

In the days before anthem protests, players on the sidelines, flush with adrenaline, might rock back and forth or clutch their collars. Fans might hold their beer or nachos. Some folks fold their hands, as in prayer, and others cross them behind their backs. There are no patriotism police ordering exact posture and gestures, because this is America.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 15: Minnesota Vikings players lock arms during the national anthem before a game against the Green Bay Packers on October 15, 2017 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Many NFL players locked arms last season to represent unity. It has become a commonplace, accepted practice. Even the football players at my son's suburban high school locked arms during the anthem. No veterans or vice presidents stormed out of the bleachers over such a humble expression of unity and solidarity.

Yet the president has deemed locking arms, as well as simple conscientious objection from the ceremony, unacceptable. Stand where and how I tell you to stand or else. If that isn't the most frighteningly un-American mandate you have ever heard, you may want to take an online civics class.

The NFL wanted to get away from politics, but instead it brought politics straight into every game and broadcast. The White House now reserves the right to attack players who do anything it deems unpatriotic. There will be tweets attacking NFL players "escaping" to locker rooms. Owners, coaches and players now face a new set of decisions, which they will be grilled about endlessly. Players who choose to abide by the league's policy, but not the president's, may face personal attacks. The vitriol will seep into other sports and other levels of sport.

And who knows what element of football the current administration will declare unsatisfactory next?

The NFL's only defense is to clarify its anthem policy and push back. Emphasize and support each player's right to remain in the locker room. Affirm the "respectfulness" of simple gestures like locking arms. State unequivocally that the executive branch of the United States government does not have the right to dictate to the NFL in this way, because it doesn't.

Don't hold your breath, though. The league will either capitulate to the hand-on-heart language or just hide behind PR vagueness in the foolish belief this will somehow blow over.

Whether it happens by capitulation or procrastination, granting so much power over free expression to the president is potentially chilling.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

The Eagles did not kneel or remain in the locker room during the national anthem. But many Eagles spoke eloquently and persistently about social justice. They lobbied lawmakers. They participated in rallies. They donated vast sums of money to charitable causes all across the spectrum. They won a Super Bowl while demonstrating the best possible democratic citizenship and doing everything engaged, informed individuals should do to improve society. They did it all peacefully, "respectfully" (by any reasonable definition) and effectually—helping get legislation passed and a wrongfully incarcerated man released.

The Eagles were ideally American: successful and civic-minded. They were role models for anyone who values building bridges within communities, spurring social change and making their voices heard.

That's what the White House is trying to stamp out: not disrespect, not even dissent, but simple disagreement with its platform and policies.

That's truly terrifying, not just for the NFL, but for everyone.

           

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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