How national anthem rules differ across sports leagues

President Trump says NFL 'has to change' (1:02)

President Donald Trump says protests during the national anthem at NFL games leave the league in "a very bad box." (1:02)

The NFL's national anthem saga has sparked renewed interest about the anthem and how it's observed at sporting events.

An ESPN review of the policies published by seven leagues and the NCAA reveal few official requirements. The NFL's policy, which suggests but does not mandate standing, is among the most specific. Amid President Donald Trump's ongoing scrutiny -- he told Fox News this week that the NFL should be "enforcing a rule that's been in existence for a long time" -- let's take a closer look.


According to a league spokesman, the NFL's game-day operations manual has spelled out its anthem policy for decades. It also makes clear that potential discipline can be adjudicated on a discretionary basis.

Here is the full wording. Previous reports that it was established in 2009 are inaccurate.

"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."

For much of the league's post-merger history (since 1970), the league omitted prime-time games from this policy. Because national networks preferred to broadcast player introductions for night games, the NFL scheduled the national anthem to an earlier time so the game could kick off immediately after introductions.

In 2009, the NFL re-scripted its pregame schedule to make it uniform across all time slots, according to spokesman Brian McCarthy. The long-held expectation of players taking the field to observe the national anthem for afternoon kickoffs was extended to night games.

The use of conditional words in the policy -- "should" and "may" -- meant that players were not required to "stand at attention." (McCarthy said last year that the NFL "strongly encourages" it.)

In either event, networks rarely televised the anthems until the 2016 preseason, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racism within the United States justice system.

The league employed its discretion and did not discipline Kaepernick, nor any of the players who have protested since. Teams that remained in the locker room in Week 3 during the anthem will not lose draft choices, the league confirmed this week.


Rules for both leagues are identical in this regard: "Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the national anthem."

This week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he expected players to stand, but stopped short of making it a requirement.

"It's my hope that our players will continue to use that as a moment of unity," Silver said. "... Many of our players have spoken out already about their plan to stand for the anthem. And I think they understand how divisive an issue it is in our society right now."

There is no mention of discipline, but the NBA did set a precedent when Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf decided not to stand during the national anthem late in the 1994-95 season. He believed the anthem and flag were not inclusive, either religiously or politically. His position went unnoticed for months. When it became public the following season, the NBA told him he could remain in the locker room if he did not want to stand, but he refused, according to Outside the Lines.

The NBA suspended him for one game without pay, a loss of $31,707. Afterward, Abdul-Rauf agreed to stand -- but pray -- during the anthem.

Major League Baseball

There are no documented rules on this issue, an MLB spokesman said this week. The spokesman added: "While this is not a league rule, the playing of the national anthems of the United States and Canada remains an important tradition that has great meaning to our fans. The playing of 'God Bless America' at designated games is a club choice."


According to a league spokesman, the only formal rule regarding the anthem is that it must be played before games, be it the U.S. or Canadian version or both, depending on the teams involved. There is no mention of being on the ice or standing during the performance.

NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr said in a statement this week that any NHL player would have the union's "full support" if he chooses to make a "peaceful protest" this season.


NASCAR has no written policy about the national anthem. Drivers and team personnel typically line up either by their car or their pit stall during the anthem; the drivers then get five minutes to get into the car before the engines are fired.

Last weekend, longtime team owner Richard Childress said he told his team that protesting would "get you a ride on a Greyhound bus." Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty added: "Anybody that don't stand up for the anthem ought to be out of the country. Period. What got 'em where they're at? The United States."

Owner Andy Murstein, the majority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, said he would not fire an employee who protested during the anthem. Regardless, the quotes prompted Trump to tweet that he was "so proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans."


The NCAA's bylaws make no mention of participation in the national anthem. Student-athletes are expected to be on the field or court for postseason play, including bowl games, but there are no publicly available rules that dictate their comportment during the anthem. NCAA spokespeople did not respond to repeated requests for further context from ESPN.

U.S. Soccer Federation

In May, the group that governs the U.S. men's and women's national programs enacted the strictest rules ESPN could find. It reads: "All persons representing a Federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented."

The rule came after Megan Rapinoe, a member of the U.S. women's team, knelt prior to a game against Thailand in September 2016.

Major League Soccer

The league's policy mirrors the NFL's and others: It encourages players to stand but will not require them to do so.

In a statement this week, the MLS said: "The march of players, officials and children into our stadiums and singing of the anthem has been a pre-match tradition since our first game in 1996. The National Anthem provides our clubs and fans an important and time-honored opportunity to salute our country and stand up for its principles -- whether in the United States or in Canada.

"At the same time, freedom of speech -- and the right to peaceful protest -- are the hallmarks of both countries. Though we encourage our players to stand during the national anthem, we respect and support their right to express their personal beliefs."

ESPN's Jerry Crasnick, Mitch Sherman, Melanie Jackson, Bob Pockrass and Emily Kaplan contributed to this report.