How the NFL Players’ Union Can Block the League’s New Ban on Protests

On August 26, 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem, triggering a national debate around First Amendment rights of speech and issues of racial injustice.

The very next day, the National Football League (NFL) and the 49ers issued separate statements about the incident, and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) executive director DeMaurice Smith did an in-depth interview with The Nation’s sports editor Dave Zirin.

“Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem,” the NFL said, echoing existing policy in the NFL game operations manual. The 49ers emphasized that “respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose to participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”

Smith’s interview responses generally supported freedom of expression and unequivocally backed Kaepernick. “There is never going to be a day where this union is going to sit back idly and allow anybody to trample our players’ rights,” he said.

More than a year later, President Donald Trump launched a scathing attack on protesting players and demanded they be fired. The NFL and the union responded immediately in the players’ defense. Trump continued to denounce the protests for weeks and called on football fans to boycott games. Dallas Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones threatened to bench protesting players after consulting with Trump.

The controversy spurred the NFLPA’s October 9 statement on player’s constitutional rights. Two days later, the league and the union issued a joint statement confirming that there was no change in policy around protests. On October 17, a much publicized meeting of the NFL and NFLPA resulted in an agreement “to review and discuss plans to utilize our platform to promote equality and effectuate positive change.” No player…

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