ATLANTA - The NFL and the owners of its 32 teams enacted a new policy Wednesday that no longer requires players to be on the sideline for the playing of the national anthem before games, but does empower teams to discipline players who protest publicly during that time.
The league's new position, the latest development in a controversy that began with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem in 2016 and became more heated last fall following comments from President Donald Trump, leaves wide discretion to discipline players for acts deemed disrespectful during the anthem.
"Clearly our objective as a league and to all 32 clubs, which was unanimous, is that we want people to be respectful of the national anthem," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said on the final day of a two-day owners' meeting at an Atlanta hotel.
But the new policy also says the league can fine a team for any protest during the anthem by one of its players. Owners said their expectation is that if a player opts to be on the sideline for the anthem, rather than remaining in the locker room, that player will stand.
"Those who are not comfortable standing for the anthem have the right to stay off the field," Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II said. "We're not forcing anybody to stand who doesn't feel that that's within the way they feel about particular subjects. But those that are on the field are going to be asked to stand. We've listened to a lot of different viewpoints, including our fans, over the last year. I think this policy is meant to come out at a place where we're respecting everybody's point of view on this as best we could."
Under the new policy, a team such as the Dallas Cowboys or Houston Texans could not force a player to be on the sideline for the anthem but could discipline any player who protests on the sideline during the anthem.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last season that he would bench any Dallas player who refused to stand for the anthem. Texans owner Robert McNair said at the annual league meeting in March that NFL playing fields are not the place for political statements. Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown reportedly told free agent safety Eric Reid this offseason that he planned to require Bengals players to stand for the anthem.
Conversely, any team or owner that wants to allow players to protest would have to be willing to pay a fine by the league. The NFL did not disclose the amount of such a fine. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks were among the teams that were particularly tolerant in the past of the players' protests.
The NFL Players Association announced it would study the new policy and challenge any aspects of it that the union found to be in violation of the sport's collective bargaining agreement.
"The NFL chose to not consult the union in the development of this new ‘policy,'" the NFLPA said in its statement. "NFL players have shown their patriotism through their social activism, their community service, in support of our military and law enforcement and yes, through their protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.
"The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the NFL's Management Council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our League."
New York Jets Chairman Christopher Johnson told Newsday that he would not discipline a player on his team who protests and he would pay the league's fine of the Jets in that case.
Jed York, the chief executive officer of the 49ers, told reporters that his team abstained from the vote.
"All 32 clubs want to ensure that during the moments that the anthem is played, that is a very important moment to all of us as a league, to our personnel and to our country," Goodell said. "And that's a moment that we want to make sure is done in a very respectful fashion."
That NFL's previous anthem policy, written into the game operations manual given by the league to teams, required players to be on the sideline for the anthem. It said that players should stand for the anthem but it did not require it.
Owners said they discussed the issue for about two hours Tuesday and an hour Wednesday. There did not appear to be sufficient support among the owners for a strict leaguewide requirement that players stand for the anthem.
The owners could have left the previous policy unchanged. They could have made the anthem policy a decision made by the home team for each game. They could have reverted to the sport's pre-2009 approach and kept all players in the locker rooms until after the anthem is played.
Many owners previously had said that while they would like players to stand for the anthem, they were not prepared to require it. That was the approach taken by owners when they met last October in New York and did not change the previous anthem policy. They focused then on discussions with a group of players that led to a social justice initiative by which the league and teams are providing funding to players' community activism.
"Last fall was difficult, I think, for all of us within the league," Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy said. "But one of the real positives that came out of it was the improved relationship between management and the players. I think that's been a real positive. We want that to continue as we move forward."
The issue became a national controversy last season after Trump and some fans were sharply critical of protests during the anthem by some NFL players. Trump publicly urged owners to fire any player who protested during the anthem. In a season of sagging television ratings, observers and some owners wondered how much the backlash over the protests was affecting the economics of the nation's most prosperous pro sports league.
The protests continued last season after being started during the 2016 season by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the 49ers. He refused to stand for the anthem in protest of the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S.
Kaepernick was out of the league last season and he and Reid have pending grievances accusing the league and teams of colluding to keep them unsigned.
Owners spoke of their desire to put the focus of fans back on the games being played.
"I look forward to getting the focus back on football and getting back to football in 2018," Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said.