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Training Camps Are Beginning, and the Hysteria Around the NFL's Anthem Policy Is Building

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 7/20/2018 Conor Orr

Welcome to the longest season of commissioner Roger Goodell’s life.

Just as the first whiff of training camp action began to shift focus back to the field, a copy of the Miami Dolphins’ team rulebook was leaked to the Associated Press. The Dolphins, according to the AP, placed anything outside of “proper anthem conduct” under the umbrella of “conduct detrimental to the club.” The AP than drew a line between that information and the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, which allows teams to suspend players for up to four weeks with that designation.

Chaos ensued, but as always, there’s some fine print to consider.

Back in May, you’ll remember, the league hastily passed a new policy that kicked discipline on national anthem-related issues back to the club. Most, if not all, teams will have some kind of similar anthem-related policy in their rulebooks this year and we’ll likely see a slew of other stories come out in the next few weeks when other clubs file their rulebooks.

According to a team source, the Dolphins were simply filing their rulebook in accordance with NFL guidelines, which mandate that teams “must publish and make available to all players at the commencement of preseason training camp a complete list of the discipline that can be imposed for both designated offenses within the limits set by the maximum schedule referred to in Section 1 above and for other violations of reasonable Club rules.”

So basically, Miami put it under that umbrella to just have something on the books once they actually cement their policy. It’s a placeholder. They couldn’t do it the other way around, adding a line about the anthem to the rulebook after the filing deadline. Could they legitimately suspend a player four games for kneeling? Yes. Will they? That remains to be seen.

While this story developed with all the grace of a fork in the microwave (thanks, Twitter), it was a kind of momentary backlash deserved by the NFL. The haziness of this policy, which gives the team leeway to punish a player and the league freedom to punish the team, is not well-understood at the ground level. Consider what’s happening in Nashville with Titans star Jurrell Casey, who recently told CNN, “I’m going to take a fine this year, why not? I'm going to protest during the flag. That’s what I’m going to say now.”

The Titans tried to walk that back Thursday via team CEO and goatee enthusiast Steve Underwood.

“I think our head coach [Mike Vrabel] and general manager [Jon Robinson] are interested in having a conversation after he gets back from the United Kingdom,” Underwood told reporters Thursday, per Joey Garrison of The Tennessean. “We think there may be some misunderstanding on his part. Because the new league policy does not provide anywhere that fines are made against players. If a player doesn’t stand, the teams can be fined, but not the players.

“There are two things that can happen that are considered to be legitimate under the policy: stay in the locker room or you can stand respectfully during the anthem. And it doesn’t apply just to the players; it applies to every employee of ours. So, we’re not exactly sure why he suggested that he would, as he put, ‘take his fine’ because there will be no fines levied against him.”

Goodell lacks the ability to head off anything at the pass—a theme that has underlined his entire tenure as commissioner. He now wafts this nebulous policy on the anthem into the most hostile political environment in decades. In short, by attempting to create a situation where he could control players’ actions during the anthem, he created an endless news cycle that will be almost impossible for him to control, obscuring his intended goal of a quiet, politic-free September, October and November. 

Now, more than ever, people hear what they want to hear. People read what they want to read. What politically motivated NFL fan, regardless of their leaning, is going to pause for a moment when the next story like this breaks and take a minute to read the fine print?

Related slideshow: Biggest question for all 32 NFL teams (Provided by CBS Sports) 


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