The NFL has made a big show in the last month of standing by its players and up to Donald Trump after the president called on league owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who protested during the playing of the national anthem.
As Slate’s Nick Greene wrote of the league’s response, the NFL seemed to actually have gone so far as to turn these serious and provocative protests into a show of Up With People–style “unity” in the face of the president’s demeaning and abusive personal attacks.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, however, now apparently believes that the league has more to gain by siding with the president instead of acting as though it’s siding with the players. On Tuesday, the commissioner sent a memo to league owners that vaguely outlined a plan that would give Trump exactly what he was asking for.
Here’s what ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported:
The NFL right now is considering a proposal that would change the wording in its operations manual and it would make it such that the players would be required to stand for the national anthem.
Currently the NFL operations manual states that players “should stand at attention” during the anthem. As Deadspin reported on Monday, the league already modified that portion of the operations manual once sometime in the last three years. It used to say that failure to stand may “result in disciplinary action from the league office,” and now it actually lists severe potential punishments “such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s).”
Schefter reported that the league is considering a further revision that would change the words “should stand” to “must stand.” According to ESPN, the decision will likely be made at the league’s annual fall meeting on Oct. 17–18. At least one NFL owner, Jerry Jones, has promised to enforce the nonbinding recommendation version of the rule on his Dallas Cowboys and bench protesting players. Jones has explicitly credited the president with having “reminded me about the game ops policy.”
Now it looks like Goodell is going to mandate that the rest of the league follow the Cowboys’ owner’s example, as well as President Trump’s suggestions.
This move would offer teams license to “fire” any “son of a bitch” who doesn’t stand, lest owners face severe NFL-mandated consequences. It would also allow the league to suspend protesting players. Most importantly, it would suppress players’ attempts to exercise free speech rights in a total cave to Trump, which is perhaps why Goodell is considering it as surreptitiously as possible.
His weasel-worded memo to league owners did not expressly declare what was under consideration. Rather, it stated his desire to have players stand during the anthem without describing the potential mandate, while also criticizing the anthem protests as “divisive.”
“The current dispute over the National Anthem is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country,” Goodell wrote. “I’m very proud of our players and owners who have done the hard work over the past year to listen, understand and attempt to address the underlying issues within their communities.”
This statement does not acknowledge what those issues are—systemic, centuries-old racism that cannot be solved by a NFL-sponsored statement of generic support—or the fact that the anthem protests are a direct attempt to raise awareness around those issues.
“Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem,” Goodell wrote. “We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues.”
According to Goodell, though, raising those unnamed issues through protest is preventing “progress” on the unnamed issues.
“The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues,” he wrote. “We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”
Again, it’s worth noting how Goodell declines from explicitly mentioning a single precise issue. This way, the league can nod to the idea that it is supporting players’ attempts to address their political concerns while actually banning them from bringing attention to those concerns in one of the most powerful ways they have available.
Ultimately, Goodell is hoping to brand such a ban as a league-sanctioned endorsement of “unity” around issues that are controversial by nature, again without actually discussing or addressing a single such issue.
“Building on many discussions with clubs and players, we have worked to develop a plan that we will review with you at next week’s League meeting,” he wrote. “This would include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help to promote positive change in our country.”
By making this discussion of “core issues” a league-sanctioned, controlled, and promoted display of “unity,” Goodell believes he cannot only banish players from expressing their message: He thinks he can completely co-opt it.