Partway into the 2017 NFL season, the practice begun by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the previous year’s exhibition season — of kneeling on the sidelines (rather than standing) during the playing of the U.S. national anthem before games in order to symbolize opposition to racial injustice in America — had become widespread around the league. Many players — and some whole teams — had similarly started “taking a knee” on the sidelines, or staying in the locker room, while pre-game renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were played in football stadiums.
The protest gained momentum after United States President Donald Trump issued comments prior to the NFL’s Week 3 schedule suggesting that football players who declined to stand during the national anthem should be fined, that fans should boycott games, and that the league should alter their policy to force players to stand during pre-game ceremonies:
If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
…our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
During that weekend’s games, an item began circulating via social media proclaiming that the NFL League Rulebook specifically required that all players must be on the sideline during the playing of the national anthem, and that “failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s)”:
The specific rule pertaining to the national anthem is found on pages A62-63 of the NFL League Rulebook. It states:
‘The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem. During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition … It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.’
However, no such wording appears in the 2017 version of the Official Playing Rules of the National Football League (which the NFL also sometimes refers to as an “operations manual”): Pages 62 and 63 contain only regulations about the enforcement of fouls committed on the field during gameplay, and nowhere else does that document specify anything about the either the playing of the national anthem prior to games or the required behavior of players and team personnel during that ceremony. In fact, the rulebook makes no mention of the national anthem at all.
Rule 4, which covers Game Timing, states only that both teams must be on the field before the scheduled start time of the first and second halves, and must initially appear on the field at least 10 minutes early in order to allow sufficient time for warming up:
Both teams must be on the field to kick off at the scheduled time for the start of each half. Prior to the start of the game, both teams are required to appear on the field at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled kickoff in order to ensure sufficient time for proper warm-up. Designated members of the officiating crew must notify both head coaches personally of the scheduled time for kickoff prior to the start of each half.
Rule 5, which covers Players, Substitutes, Equipment, and General Rules, does include (in Article 8) a section prohibiting players from “conveying personal messages” throughout the game day while they are visible to fans in attendance and television audiences, and from “convey[ing] messages, through helmet decals, arm bands, jersey patches, or other items affixed to game uniforms or equipment, which relate to political activities or causes …”:
Throughout the period on game-day that a player is visible to the stadium and television audience (including in pregame warm-ups, in the bench area, and during postgame interviews in the locker room or on the field), players are prohibited from wearing, displaying, or otherwise conveying personal messages either in writing or illustration, unless such message has been approved in advance by the League office. Items to celebrate anniversaries or memorable events, or to honor or commemorate individuals, such as helmet decals, and arm bands and jersey patches on players’ uniforms, are prohibited unless approved in advance by the League office. All such items approved by the League office, if any, must relate to team or League events or personages. The League will not grant permission for any club or player to wear, display, or otherwise convey messages, through helmet decals, arm bands, jersey patches, or other items affixed to game uniforms or equipment, which relate to political activities or causes, other non-football events, causes or campaigns, or charitable causes or campaigns. Further, any such approved items must be modest in size, tasteful, non-commercial, and noncontroversial; must not be worn for more than one football season; and if approved for use by a specific team, must not be worn by players on other teams in the League.
However, some sources have confusingly stated that the NFL has a separate game operations manual distributed to all the teams, and it is that document, not the rulebook, which supposedly includes the wording in question regarding player conduct during the national anthem:
It’s important to know that NFL football games are governed by multiple codes of conduct. One is the NFL rulebook; another is the NFL game operations manual. The rulebook is concerned with in-game actions by players and coaches (like scoring, penalties, challenges and so on), whereas the game-operations manual dictates how NFL games should be run in the bigger-picture organizational sense.
“The league’s Game Operations Department uses the manual to govern the conduct of home clubs, to ensure they protect players and provide the conditions for a fair and fan-friendly contest,” reads the NFL’s website. “Clubs face warnings and other penalties for noncompliance.”
The NFL rulebook makes no mention of the national anthem. But the game operations manual does.
Here’s what the game operations manual says regarding the national anthem, according to an NFL spokesperson:
‘The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem.
‘During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.’
We have not yet been able to independently confirm the existence and wording of this second document (the NFL has not responded to our query), but the proffered wording — which league spokesman Brian McCarthy described as a “policy” rather than a “rule” — states that players must “be” on the sideline for the national anthem, not that they must “stand” on the sideline (the latter is listed only as something players “should” do). The wording also establishes that players “may” (not “shall”) be penalized for not observing the regulation, and indeed the NFL announced that they would not take any disciplinary measures over players’ remaining in the locker room before Week 3 games:
The NFL will not discipline those teams and players who refused to be on the field for the playing of the national anthem before games Sunday, league spokesman Joe Lockhart said.
“There will be no discipline handed down this week,” Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, said in a conference call with reporters.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans were not on the field for the anthem.
When Colin Kaepernick first made waves by kneeling during pre-game ceremonies back in August 2016, the NFL issued a statement proclaiming that “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.” NBC News similarly observed that “The NFL has no such rule, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement is silent on the subject.”
Nonetheless, could Article 8, Rule 5 of the rulebook itself be interpreted as requiring NFL players to stand on the sidelines during the national anthem? The latter part of it would not seem to apply, as players who kneel or remain in the locker room during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are not wearing, or affixing to their uniforms, any symbols related to their protest. The first part seemingly provides league officials broad latitude to determine what constitutes a “personal message,” but as James Dator noted in addressing this issue on SBNATION, it’s unlikely that section could or would be applied to the current protests:
Despite claims over what is or isn’t “acceptable,” none of them hold weight. Potential disciplinary action over how players act during the anthem would need to be in place under the collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, and to make matters more complicated, several states that have teams also extend first-amendment protection to employees of private businesses while at work.