NFL owners agreed on Wednesday to a new policy regarding the national anthem, including a fine imposed on teams if a player chooses to protest by kneeling or sitting on the sidelines during the playing of the patriotic song.
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Players also have the option to remain in the locker room or somewhere else off field if they don’t want to stand for the anthem.
“It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a public statement. “This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”
The silent protests, which began during the 2016 NFL season when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt to bring attention to police brutality committed against African Americans, roiled the league and left officials scrambling for a solution.
The debate intensified during the 2017 season when President Trump criticized the league and team owners’ responses to the situation. The president urged football fans to boycott games until the league fired or suspended players who refused to stand, saying they needed to stop “disrespecting our flag and country.”
An average NFL game was watched by 1.6 million fewer people in 2017 versus the prior year, an overall decline from 16.5 million to 14.9 million, according to ESPN. Ratings saw a similar decline last season, falling 8%, the sports network reported.