Answering the biggest questions around the NFL's anthem policy

ATLANTA -- NFL owners have approved a policy that could end player protests during the national anthem. Will it work? Are owners truly united in the effort? And is it more complicated than it needed to be?

Let's take a closer look at all the lingering questions.

Give it to me in a nutshell. What's the new policy?

Any team personnel, including players, must "stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem" if they're on the field at that time, according to the policy statement. It replaces a previous policy that said players "should" stand but did not make it required.

What does "on the field at that time" mean?

Players who don't want to stand have the option to go to the locker room during the anthem performance. There will be no discipline for doing so.

"We're not forcing anyone to stand that doesn't feel that's within the way they feel about the particular subjects," Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II said. "But those that are on the field are going to be asked to stand."

Does that mean any player in the locker room during the anthem will be assumed to be in silent protest?

That's where things start to get complicated. Players sometimes go in for last-second treatment or (emergency) bathroom breaks. They now might have to clarify why they were not on the field.

How exactly will the NFL define "showing respect" for players who are on the field for the anthem?

It's a fair question given the frequency of disputes between players and the league on policy interpretations. What's clear is that the anthem policy extends beyond kneeling or sitting. Linking arms and raising fists, for example, are also expected to be prohibited.

Owners queried on this issue Wednesday said, in essence, that they'll know it when they see it.

"We didn't define exactly what they have to be doing to be out there," Rooney said, "but I think everyone understands what it means to be respectful toward the anthem."

This is actually a quite reasonable point. If the point of protest is to draw attention, the protest itself can't be subtle. It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which a player is perceived to have protested when in fact he intended no such thing.

What's to stop a player from protesting on the field?

Again, it's complicated. Some owners wanted to avoid a direct threat of discipline for protesting. In the end, the league can only fine the team -- not the player himself -- for a protest. In turn, it is up to the individual team to develop its own policy for disciplining players who protest during the anthem.

Any team punishment of a player must be in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement. Most likely, discipline for protesting would fall under "conduct detrimental to the team." According to the CBA, the maximum punishment for that violation is one week's salary and/or a four-week unpaid suspension.

How much could the league fine the teams?

The league hasn't said, and it's an important detail. If the fine is relatively small, a sympathetic owner could pay the league and then decline to discipline the player.

So, in that scenario, a player could protest and not face discipline?


Will that happen? Is there really an owner who would endorse a protest during the anthem, despite these efforts?

Perhaps. New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson said that he won't discourage players from kneeling, even if it results in the club being fined by the NFL.

"Our focus is not on imposing any club rules, fines or restrictions," Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson's comments help illustrate the division among owners. So does the decision of San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York, who abstained entirely from the vote. York didn't provide many details to explain his decision, other than to say he wanted to focus on pursuing progress.

Why were owners so divided?

Much like the country at large, they come from various backgrounds and political tilts. Some, including the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, were genuinely aghast at players protesting during the anthem. Some feared for the business. Others, such as Johnson, did not want to drive further divisions with players.

The final policy was a tortured threading of the needle that reflected multiple viewpoints. Here's one example of the knots the owners tied themselves into: Some rejected a proposal to clear the field of all team personnel before the anthem, long considered the cleanest and easiest fix, because they thought it would be interpreted as a mass protest and/or disrespectful to the flag.

Are owners really concerned about patriotism? Or just the appearance of it?

Can the answer be both? All owners prefer that players stand during the anthem, but their efforts to address it didn't start until President Donald Trump began criticizing the protests last fall. To complete the circle, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted a screenshot of a news story on the policy Wednesday and included the hashtag "#winning."

You've come all this way and barely addressed the players' viewpoint!

Sorry, but that mirrors the NFL's approach throughout the process. Owners worked closely with a group of players to create an $89 million social justice platform, one designed to address some of the issues players were protesting. But the league did not consult with the NFL Players Association during the development of the anthem policy.

Why not?

Because they didn't have to and didn't want to. The policy is a part of the game operations manual, not the CBA, and isn't subject to collective bargaining. Owners wanted to work with players on the core issues at the root of the protests. But one way to view the policy is an attempt to wrest control of an issue owners felt was threatening their bottom line.

What is the NFLPA saying?

The union will do what it should: review the rule and then protect players by challenging any attempts -- intentional or otherwise -- to skirt the CBA.

Executive director DeMaurice Smith leaned in hard in a statement posted to Twitter, saying that "management has chosen to squash the same freedom of speech that protects someone who wants to salute the flag in an effort to prevent someone who does not wish to do so." That claim seems to ignore the players' option to go into the locker room, but it reflects the frustrated opposition of a group excluded from the process.

What else could go wrong?

The league must be prepared to deal with owners who apply implicit or overt pressure on players to take the field, stand for the anthem and forgo a trip to the locker room. It would be a violation of the rule but difficult to adjudicate outside of the CBA. This could be especially relevant if enough players remain in the locker room to make it a weekly issue.

What's next?

The policy allows each club to "develop its own work rules, consistent with the above principles, regarding its personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem." In other words, each team can decide how (or if) it wants to discipline players or other employees who protest during the anthem. The presumed deadline is the first week of the preseason.