The Dolphins just showed the NFL what a mess it's made with anthem policy

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

The Miami Dolphins could suspend players up to four games if they don’t employ “Proper Anthem Conduct” this season, according to an internal document attained by the Associated Press.

That’s one more games than the NFL believes is merited for sexually assaulting an Uber driver. It’s at least 12 games less than President Donald Trump wants, since he called on players who protest the anthem to be pulled immediately off the field and “fired.”

Some Dolphins fans will agree with Trump. Some will think the players should be allowed to peacefully protest as they want. Almost no one will be happy. An old and tired political wedge issue has been reignited with lots of shouting and pouting. It’s sure to happen 31 more times as the individual policies of the rest of the teams in the NFL get leaked out.

As training camps begin to open, the story of the NFL will not be quarterback battles or Super Bowl hopes but the anthem (again) and Trump’s reaction to it (whenever politically convenient for him to weigh in). Then we’ll get to preseason games and locker room monitoring and the regular season and suspensions and so on and so on and so on.

Whether you think the players should stand or not isn’t the issue. Debate among yourselves. Everyone can agree this was one of the worst crisis management/public relations ideas in sports history; the NFL just asking to get beaten like a piñata.

Trump’s opinion matters here because appeasing him was the entire purpose of the NFL owners taking on the situation. Here’s a hint: he’ll never be appeased because not being appeased is the best thing for him. They had Vice President Mike Pence fly all the way to Indianapolis just so he could storm out in supposed shock and disgust.

Ignoring the obvious, the owners this spring stoked the dying fire of the anthem issue by enacting a pointless policy that pleased no one. Players can stay in the locker room during the anthem (which is, of course, a form of protest). Or they can come out on the field and it’s up to the team to decide if they behaved properly.

“Players who are on the field during the Anthem performance must stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” the Dolphins policy reads.

“Show respect” is left undefined. Lawyers will have fun with that. Perhaps it prohibits things like going to the bathroom, drinking beer, looking at their phones or shouting or adding words to the anthem like some fans do during its playing.

The Miami Dolphins’ new anthem policy reads: “Players who are on the field during the Anthem performance must stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” (AP)

The NFL wishes this would all go away. Instead it made sure questions abound.

Who stayed in the locker room? Was someone “respectful” enough? Will this team really enforce its policy and suspend a guy? What about a star player? What if everyone kneels? What about an important player during the playoff chase, ruining a season and angering the fans of actual football? Or will the team go lenient and get called un-patriotic by Trump, who is dying to pounce on anything and everything.

“Hey, Coach, forget about how your team won the game, can you talk about the pregame anthem and whether it will cost you your linebacker for the next month?”

Sound like a nightmare? It’s the NFL’s self-created one. So much so that after the Dolphins’ policy leaked, the league issued a joint statement with the NFLPA saying they were working on a resolution (which was supposedly reached after the owners meeting in May) and that “no new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks while these confidential discussions are ongoing.

There is no question many fans were upset when Colin Kaepernick began this practice in the 2016 preseason. The fan boycott had mostly petered out though. Television executives claimed more people were watching than ever, once you included streaming numbers. Only a small number of players were still protesting until Trump collectively called them a “son of a bitch” last year and stirred it up for his own benefit. Then it wound down again. Not one player took a knee in the playoffs or Super Bowl.

Whatever weakening it did to fan interest was about to become meaningless with the coming waves of legalized sports wagering in states across the country that will surely increase consumption. If there was ever a time the NFL could have just moved on and dealt with it, this was it.

Or the NFL could have toughened up and enacted a full-on ban from protesting. That’s what the NBA does, citing control over employees while on the job.

Instead, the NFL owners went wishy-washy and played into their most powerful critic. With this being an election year, and Trump facing bipartisan criticism for being un-American and siding with Vladimir Putin rather than his own intelligence agencies, you can bet he’s going to pound this horse long past its death.

Trump runs his presidency as a series of cable news wedge issues and few have proven better for him than this one — questioning the patriotism of millionaire NFL players.

This offseason, when not enough Philadelphia Eagles agreed to come to meet him in the White House, he cancelled the visit and held a “Celebration of America” complete with a military band. That not a single Eagle knelt for the anthem last season didn’t matter. Facts rarely do any more. Fox News just showed some guys on their knees praying instead. Then there was the footage from the “Celebration of America,” Trump appearing to not know the words to “God Bless America.”

Still, this issue works for Trump and his base. The NFL’s new policy could be considered an in-kind political donation to his efforts to maintain control of Congress. He knows he could give Alaska back to Russia and as long as he can bash the NFL over the anthem, he’ll be Captain America to some.

So, the first policy is out — up to four games in Miami. Who knows how much everywhere else? The news cycle will spin on. All eyes on the first preseason pregame. Actual football on the back-burner. Lots of shouting. Little listening. The midterms growing closer by the day.

It’s going to be a long, contentious season for the NFL, which walked its foolish self directly into this public relation punch in the face.

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