NFL's new anthem policy is a capitulation to political pressure: Robyn Urback

Perhaps the patriotism police at football games and sanctimonious campus safe-space enthusiasts should meet to compare the emotional “owies” they’ve had to endure by bearing witness to controversial expression.

This crackdown is the opposite of everything the 'land of the free' is supposed to be about

The NFL announced Wednesday that it will begin fining teams whose players kneel or sit during the playing of the national anthem. (Eric Risberg/The Associated Press)

Somewhere beyond the metal detectors, the mandatory clear backpacks, the armed teachers, the armed guards, the social media surveillance, the reported presidential musings about imprisoning journalists and new rules punishing NFL players for unpatriotic behaviour, the  United States of America is still the Land of Free.

Granted, the space where that remains true is a place commonly referred to as one's imagination, where Facebook is still cool, House Speaker Paul Ryan is still a principled conservative and it somehow makes sense to deride campus "snowflakes" for shouting down controversial speakers while at the same time applauding the NFL for its new policy banning gestures that some view as offensive.

The safe-space crusaders win again, I guess.

The NFL announced Wednesday that it will begin fining teams whose players kneel or sit during the playing of the national anthem — a gesture made famous in 2016 by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a silent protest against police brutality and racial inequality in the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump sent Vice-President Mike Pence, front center, to an NFL game in Indianapolis in October 2017, apparently for the sole purpose of having him walk out when players kneeled during the national anthem. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Since then, dozens of players — some in other leagues and sports — have joined in, creating a movement wide-reaching enough to elicit the ire of the president of the United States.

"Two dozen NFL players continue to kneel during the National Anthem, showing total disrespect to our Flag & Country," Donald Trump tweeted back in October. "No leadership in NFL!"

Now, seven months later, the NFL's new policy does allow for players to remain off the field during the anthem if they choose not to stand, though the public will be left to determine whether absent players are making a deliberate political statement or whether their pre-game physio just happened to run a bit long. In any case, the whole purpose of a protest is to actually be seen.

The NFL, however, has determined that this silent, safe, fleeting moment of personal expression is just too offensive to be aired, and so it will punish a whole team if a player falls out of line. And a slew of purported conservatives — many of whom rightfully call out student activists who attempt to stifle free speech on campus — are applauding.

So, in light of this apparent about-face, perhaps the patriotism police and sanctimonious campus safe-space enthusiasts should meet to compare the emotional "owies" they've had to endure by bearing witness to controversial expression.  

Some supporters of the change have made the case that the NFL's new policy is not really a free speech issue at all; that it's no more significant than a corporation simply cracking down on behaviour it deems to be unacceptable. But if that's true, the NFL has an awfully peculiar way of characterizing different forms of misbehaviour.

The league does not, for example, punish entire teams when one of their players abuses their wives or partners. In those cases, suspensions are doled out to players individually.

Under the NFL's new tactic, the league issues a penalty and sends a wider message: it's a team's responsibility to keep these people in line. In other words, domestic violence is a personal issue, while kneeling during the anthem is everyone's issue.

Enormous pressure from the White House

Beyond that, it's disingenuous to pretend that this policy was conceived in a vacuum, impervious to the enormous pressure put on the league from the White House, of all institutions. Of course the president — any president — would be sensitive to acts of apparent disrespect to the flag, but the freedom to peacefully protest during the national anthem is, paradoxically, the greatest tribute to what America is supposed to be all about.

Yet Trump has been bizarrely fixated with snuffing out these acts of free expression, tweeting about it more than 30 times during a month last fall. He also sent his vice-president to an Indianapolis Colts game last October, apparently for the sole purpose of having him walk out when players kneeled during the national anthem. For a stunt executed by a group of red-blooded Americans, the aura was awfully Pravda-like.

Players must either stay in their locker room during the anthem or stand while it's played, otherwise their team will be fined. 6:04

Trump's Twitter attacks have been unyielding since then, delighting in the NFL's falling viewership and calling on the league to suspend individual players. He has now gone a step further, suggesting that those who kneel during the national anthem "maybe shouldn't be in the country," as if enforced acts of patriotism are not the absolute antithesis of freedom and democracy.

The NFL, for its part, has clearly long preferred that its athletes just shut up and play — not busy themselves with these political causes. In 2015, it punished running back DeAngelo Williams for writing "Find the Cure" in his eye black for breast cancer awareness, and it fined cornerback William Gay for wearing purple cleats for domestic violence awareness that same year. But in those cases, there was at least a tenuous connection to existing uniform policy.

A policy grounded in nothing

This new anthem policy, on the other hand, is grounded in nothing.

The NFL has not simply made a corporate decision; it has capitulated to political pressure to stifle free expression.

The president demanded that displays of disrespect come with consequences, and the league yielded. That is the opposite of everything the "land of the free" is supposed to be about. But I guess in this new(ish) United States, that's as American as heavily guarded baseball and "Excuse me ma'am, please open your purse."

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback


Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:


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