National Football League owners will meet next week to potentially adopt a new rule that would force NFL players to remain standing during the pre-game playing of the national anthem, thus ending the protests by many of the league’s African-American players who say that they have taken a knee during the anthem to protest the repeated killings of unarmed black citizens by police officers.
An NFL spokesperson revealed that the owners are considering the new rule in a statement Tuesday morning, reported by ESPN football correspondent, Adam Schefter, as well as numerous other media outlets.
The statement from NFL spokesperson Joe Lockhart said that the NFL “policy manual” already says that players “should” stand for the anthem, but that to date, the league has chosen not to enforce the policy with disciplinary measures against those who choose to kneel or sit during the anthem.
“The important point here is the owners are gathering next week for our fall meeting here in New York,” Lockhart said. “They will have a chance, all of them, to discuss the issue and look at the policy.”
According to a report yesterday by the sports site Deadspin, the NFL recently, and without a public statement, revised its previous anthem policy. A 2014 edition of the policy manual said that a players’ failure to stand during the national anthem might “result in disciplinary action from the League office.”
But the current version of the manual, according to the Deadspin report, has adopted much stronger language regarding punishment for anthem protests, saying that refusal to stand could “result in discipline, including fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violation of the above, including first offenses.”
However, the new version of the manual removed the provision saying that discipline would come from “the league office.”
If the NFL adopts a new rule forbidding the anthem protests, or attempts to discipline players who kneel during the playing if the anthem — a song which itself has been characterized as racist due to lyrics in its third verse that glorify the killing of free slaves — the league could face a Constitutional challenge that would test the rights of employers to regulate the political expression of employees.
After Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones became the first of the league’s 32 owners to announce that he would impose discipline on any Cowboys player who failed to stand for the anthem, NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith issued a statement calling on the league to “respect the Constitutional rights of our members without retribution.”
But employment law experts say that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees that “congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,” may not apply to private employers who impose limits on the freedom of speech of their employees during working hours.
“The question at hand is not whether you agree with the reason for the players’ protest, but whether or not employees have the legal right to exercise free speech,” employment law expert Rob Wilson told the site LifeHacker.
“If employers feel that the players’ protests is impacting their business, they will be within their rights to boot the player off the field. In fact, the contracts which players sign give owners plenty of leeway to fire them for any behavior they deem unbecoming, both on and off the field,” Wilson noted.
Donald Trump on Tuesday morning issued a statement via his Twitter account suggesting that “tax law” should be changed so that the NFL would stop receiving “massive tax breaks” even as players are “disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country.”
But NFL teams are for-profit businesses that receive no industry-specific “breaks” from current federal tax law. The central NFL office was previously classified as a nonprofit entity, allowing it to avoid many taxes, but the league abandoned its nonprofit status in 2015 and is now taxed as a corporate entity.
[Featured Image by Jim Rogash/Getty Images]