NFL New Conduct Policy Impacts Players’ Political Rights

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Employment by the NFL and sports in general is unique because a political ceremony is generally held at the beginning of every game. In these instances, there is a requirement for appropriate employee behavior and political expression, two things that often don’t mix in the workplace. This has not been an issue for many years, but when shocking events exposing racism and police brutality began to come into light, some professional athletes felt called to kneel instead of stand.

From that point, a conflict arose between the right of a corporation to require certain conduct by its employees versus employees’ First Amendment rights.

Public Reaction to Players and NFL

The response to those choosing to kneel on the field during the anthem has been diverse.  While some applaud the individuals, others were offended and even called this act unpatriotic. Some people became more interested in football after learning of this, but other people went so far as to boycott support for certain players, certain teams, and even the whole NFL. Trump has joined the controversy by adding that repercussions for those kneeling should be worse. He suggested that they should all be fired or even deported.

However, it is arguable to many (including veterans) that the players’ decision to kneel is indeed patriotic because it is each person’s right as an American to express themselves, and it is not up to others to make them stand or do otherwise. Some see this as an act that is not protesting America per se, but one that acknowledges the troubling disparities that seem to be perpetuated by corrupt individuals in power.

A New Policy is Introduced

In response to the dissension, NFL owners have established a new policy for all players to stand during the anthem or else stay in the locker room during that time. If a player or other employee of the team should refuse “to be respectful of the national anthem”, then the team will be fined. According to the policy, sitting or kneeling during an anthem is considered disrespectful behavior. One team chairman, Christopher Johnson of the Jets, has volunteered to pay the fines for any players that choose to defy this policy.

Employer vs. Employee Rights

It is true that a private business isn’t the government, so political statements don’t really have a place there. The NFL is, in fact, a private business, so usually they could just tell the players, who are essentially their employees, what conduct is appropriate. The dissonance happens when the anthem, which is something political, is required to take place.

Because the anthem is political, some believe that the NFL has overstepped their boundaries as an employer since the act is based on political beliefs. There is also concern about referring to sitting and kneeling as “unpatriotic.” Since this conflict has begun, players are kneeling, not jumping around flipping off all the other people that have their hand on their heart. So, it would be useful to gain clarity on how exactly “respectful” is being defined in this situation.

Many would also argue that the owners are being disrespectful to make Americans stand in a political ceremony when, in fact, they are very much participating but simply taking on different body language of a quiet nature. We have all been places where some people chose not to put their hand on their heart or recite the pledge along with others, and yet since these people weren’t in front of a crowd or on video, nothing happened.  So what is truly different in this case?

The Vote Wasn’t Unanimous.

On Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reported that the vote for this policy was “unanimous”, but actually, it simply wasn’t. The truth is that Jed York, owner of the San Francisco 49ers, actually abstained from voting on this policy. Also, according to ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Raider owner Mark Davis also abstained. Furthermore,’s Jim Trotter tells us that there were actually 8-10 owners that wanted to just leave the anthem policy alone and let it fade out. They preferred to work on efforts that players were making in the community. It is concerning that Goodell blatantly lied about the vote.

Goodell also said that the owners were sensitive about allowing choices for the players.  Perhaps some owners did have genuine concern for the players’ rights. However, the professional athletes were never given a chance to offer their input. Instead, the owners decided for them. This has greatly upset some players and several have spoken out.