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The NFL Is Beginning the 2018 Season With No New National Anthem Policy

Jenny Vrentas
Sports Illustrated

Early Friday morning, after the Eagles defeated the Falcons in the opener to a new NFL season, safety Malcolm Jenkins said he hoped the NFL would continue without a new policy for the national anthem.

“To my knowledge, I know the expression of the players are that no policy is a good policy,” Jenkins said in a nearly empty Eagles locker room. “So anything that they do to force players to either stay in the locker room, come out and stand, whatever, I think is bad for players in general. So hopefully they’ll keep this pause or rescind their policy.”

It now appears that’s what will happen. The MMQB’s Albert Breer reported Sunday morning that the NFL and the NFLPA are giving a “dry run” to keeping things as they are and creating no new policy, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter also reported that the new policy will be no policy, at least for the rest of this season. (An NFL spokesperson said Sunday that “status quo continues as productive discussions are ongoing on the important work of social justice.”)

This was the direction that many players around the league hoped the NFL would go. Jenkins, a leader of the Players Coalition social justice-advocacy group, has previously raised his fist during the anthem to raise awareness for racial injustices in America but did not do so during the regular-season opener.

Jenkins was referring to the “pause” that had been placed on a new anthem policy passed by owners in May, which would have required players and team personnel to either stand for the playing of the anthem, stay in the locker room or risk being fined. The vote was unanimous, except for 49ers owner Jed York, who abstained in part because players were not involved in the crafting of a new policy. That policy was then put on hold in July, after a leak of the conduct rules the Dolphins submitted to the NFL before the start of the 2018 season included the possibility for players to be suspended up to four games for demonstrating during the anthem.

A Washington Post article last week said that some NFL team owners were prepared to waive discipline for players who kneeled if the NFLPA endorsed players standing for the anthem. Jenkins said Friday morning he would not support that attempt at a compromise.

“You are still putting players in a position where they are costing their team money,” Jenkins said. “So while they might not be getting fined themselves, if they are costing their employer money, it’s still putting them in a tough situation. If you’re going to back us, back us.”

The NFL has been grappling with how to handle the anthem rules since 2016, when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began a social movement by kneeling during the national anthem of a preseason game to protest police brutality and racial injustice. During the third week of the 2017 season, President Donald Trump’s comments at a rally name-calling players who demonstrate during the anthem “sons of bitches” and calling for NFL team owners to fire them, incited leaguewide demonstrations during the anthem that week. The NFL and team owners later worked with the Players Coalition and committed $90 million to a social-justice platform funding local and national initiatives addressing the issues for which players were demonstrating. But the vote in May, in part an attempt to ward off another rebuke from the Oval Office—proving to be a fools’ errand—undercut that financial show of support to the players.

The topic has proved to be a polarizing one. Kaepernick is currently suing the NFL, alleging that owners colluded to keep him unemployed because of his anthem demonstrations. His former 49ers teammate Eric Reid, who joined Kaepernick in kneeling, has filed a similar grievance. In the meantime, Kaepernick pledged $1 million to charities serving oppressed communities across the U.S., and the Players Coalition has been working on a number of different campaigns promoting criminal justice reform and equal voter rights in several NFL cities.

Just a handful of players protested during the national anthem in the preseason. The only player in Thursday night’s regular-season opener who did not stand for the entire anthem was Eagles defensive lineman Michael Bennett. He stood behind Jenkins when the anthem began, then paced on the sidelines and, toward the end of the song, sat down on the bench.

“At this point, it’s important for us as a movement to change and adapt to the context of the situation,” Jenkins said Friday morning. “I think there’s a huge need for us to turn the attention towards the issues and, not only the issues, but what players are doing in their communities to effect change.”

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