NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is such a stickler for adhering to the intricacies of the NFL's league rule book that he infamously waged a years-long, multi million-dollar battle with the New England Patriots trying to prove that balls used in the 2014 AFC championship between the Pats and the Indianapolis Colts were under-inflated.
After a federal judge vacated Goodell's four-game suspension of Tom Brady, Goodell appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; by 2016, the Pats appeared to lose their will to keep fighting the case and eventually accepted the penalty (Brady's four game suspension, $1 million fine, and the loss of two draft picks).
Yet the NFL commissioner, notorious for his unusually massive compensation package -- rumored to be north of $40 million/year, making his total compensation of $156 million higher than Tom Brady's -- is taking a decidedly less fastidious approach to the rules governing the national anthem at NFL games.
The NFL rule book specifically requires both teams appear on the field for the playing of the anthem, standing, remaining quiet, and holding their helmets in their left hands. Failure to do so can result in fines, suspensions, and the loss of draft picks.
The rules are found on pages A62-63 of the league’s game operations manual:
The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem.
During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the National Anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.
On Sunday, almost a hundred players took a knee during the national anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Beats, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans all opted against even coming out on the field for the anthem.
But rather than warn these players and team they're violating league rules, Goodell is focusing his anger at President Trump, who said in a speech Friday that the NFL team owners should require their players to stand during the anthem.
“The way we reacted today, and this weekend, made me proud,” Goodell said. “I’m proud of our league.”
On Saturday, Goodell responded directly to Trump, accusing the president of disrespecting the league, which asipires to "create a sense of unity in our country and our culture":
The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we've experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.
We've reached out to the NFL, asking if any of the players or teams that skipped the national anthem will face discipline; we'll update this report with their comments.
Goodell hasn't always been so supportive of his players engaging in free speech on the field.
UPDATE: Snopes.com claims that this rule does not, in fact, exist. The article cites the rule quoted above and reports "No such wording appears in the 2017 version of the Official Playing Rules of the National Football League."
Yet the NFL's Game Operations Manual -- the 200-plus book the league refers to as its "bible" -- is different than its rulebook. It is not available to the public. The rule cited above comes from the league itself, via the Washington Post.
The Post reported Sunday that the NFL confirmed the rule's existence but emphasized their ability to enforce it selectively:
Under the league rule, the failure to be on the field for the anthem may result in discipline such as a fine, suspension or loss of a draft pick. But a league official said the key phrase is “may” result, adding he won’t speculate on whether the Steelers would be disciplined.
The specific rule pertaining to the national anthem is found on pages A62-63 of the league’s game operations manual, according to a league source.
UPDATE TWO: After Grabien contacted Snopes.com, bringing the above facts to their attention, the author amended his article, confirming the existence of the above-state rule, and changed their description of this story from "false" to "mixture."
UPDATE THREE: The NFL, responding to the Kansas City Star, confirmed the national anthem-related rules cited above. However, the NFL's vice president of communications, Brian McCarthy, "stressed that [the] passage about the national anthem is a guideline and not a requirement."
But this is odd since the rule warns that failure to comply "may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses." Why does the NFL attach penalties for failure to comply if this is all just a "guideline," as the league now argues?
It appears the NFL is simply changing the rules — by electing not to enforce them.