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NFL anthem debate: How the league can resolve issue of players who protest

President Donald Trump waded back into the debate on Friday, suggesting his own rules for the league. "First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!” he tweeted.
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The NFL stood down this week when it decided to hit pause on a policy that would punish players who kneel during the national anthem next season.

The league and the players union have agreed to "confidential discussions" over the next several weeks to determine the way forward — likely hammering out a solution ahead of the new season in September, if not before the preseason starts Aug. 2.

Nearly two years have passed since Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, first kneeled during a preseason game to quietly protest racial injustice and police brutality in the United States. Now some players' show of defiance threatens to overshadow the NFL for yet a third season — with at least one member of the Tennessee Titans saying he will protest no matter what.

Those following the controversy say the league has several plays to choose from in its bid to resolve the polarizing issue.

Force all players to stand

The NFL initially announced in May that all players who appear on the field during the national anthem must stand, or can have the option to sit out "The Star-Spangled Banner" by waiting in the locker room.

The policy change was seen as a compromise to people, including President Donald Trump, who considered players kneeling during the anthem as a sign of disrespect toward U.S. service members.

Under the new rule, teams would be subject to a fine if a player still disobeyed. The teams could also decide whether to pass the fine along to the player or punish them another way.

The NFL Players Association, however, filed a grievance last week about the rule, saying it was "inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement and infringes on player rights."

Outcry ensued Thursday after the Miami Dolphins' discipline document was obtained by The Associated Press and reportedly included "proper anthem conduct" as an offense — carrying a punishment of up to a four-game suspension.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in a statement on Friday that he hadn't decided whether to actually discipline players who protest during the anthem.

Meanwhile Trump waded back into the debate once again, claiming that players should be suspended for a game for kneeling once, then suspended for the season with no pay if they kneel a second time.

The NFL could decide to move forward with its policy, which was backed by the league's owners, but give the players union some assurances, such as guaranteeing no one would be suspended or personally fined just because they kneeled, said Alvin Tillery, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University.

Other professional sports require players to stand during the national anthem. In the NBA, the players' rulebook says players, coaches and trainers "are to stand and line up in a dignified posture." The sport has not seen the same discord with players protesting, although some NBA stars during warm-up have worn T-shirts referencing black men being killed by police.

About 200 NFL players, or about 12 percent of all players, have chosen not to stand during at least one game. Tillery said what the top black players in the NFL decide to do next season will also be influential for other players. "It will be a real test of solidarity," he added.

Play the national anthem before players take the field

Only in more recent years has the playing of the national anthem taken a larger importance and become linked with forms of pre-game pageantry.

This was noted in a 2015 joint oversight report by Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Republicans, who found the Department of Defense had spent $6.8 million on sports marketing contracts, mostly to NFL teams looking to honor service members and hold "patriotic salutes" to the military.

Playing the anthem first, before any of the players are introduced on the field, could be one way of avoiding the issue altogether, said Chuck Ross, an African-American studies professor at the University of Mississippi and author of "Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League."

Some have also suggested not playing the national anthem at all.

Mark Zeigler, a sportswriter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, asked in a May column why American football has become a popular measure for testing one's patriotism.

"What connection does it [the anthem] have to a bunch of athletes about to play a Wednesday afternoon game in the dog days of August while fans drink beer and fiddle on their phones and make last-minute bets on their team to cover the spread?" he wrote. "Why is it necessary to play it before every ... single ... game? Are we that insecure as a nation?"

Let Kaepernick back on a team

Kaepernick remains a free agent in the NFL. He was unable to secure a team last season after some criticized him for igniting the firestorm that began when he first kneeled in August 2016.

He filed a grievance last fall against the league and its owners, accusing them of colluding against him.

The NFL has declined to comment on the complaint, and both fans and sports analysts have debated over whether Kaepernick was purposefully passed over while other lesser quarterbacks were signed or if he simply wasn't good enough for a position.

The NFL giving Kaepernick another shot would be significant and could make some players who would protest reconsider — although that would depend on whether the 30-year-old even wants back in.

"The league had an opportunity to embrace Kaepernick, bring him in," Ross said. "More importantly, we wouldn't be having this discussion if another NFL team had given him an opportunity and maybe worked with him and given him another outlet for protesting."

Let the protests run their course

The more team owners try to stifle their players, the more backlash and attention it will inevitably create, said Harvey J. Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and one of the thousands of stockholder owners of the Green Bay Packers.

He said that instead of imposing requirements on players during the national anthem, the league should consider tabling the discussion.

"The league would be standing up in favor of civil liberties and civil rights," Kaye said.

But one wildcard remains in the entire debate: Trump.

The president last September gave more oxygen to the debate when he said that he felt "ashamed" by "disgraceful" NFL-wide protests. He also said in May that athletes who kneel "maybe shouldn't be in the country."

Talk like that won't help the controversy to die down, Ross said: "When it comes down to it, the United States of America was born out of protest and revolution. It's part of our DNA."