The NFL plans to fine teams whose players refuse to stand during the national anthem next season, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Wednesday.
The league's new policy no longer requires players to be on the field during the anthem, allowing any players who wish to protest to remain in the locker room.
The players' union said Wednesday it was not consulted on the policy and will issue a challenge, if necessary, after reviewing it.
"Our union will review the new 'policy' and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement," the NFLPA said in a statement.
Prior to Wednesday, the league's policy had been that players were encouraged to stand during the song, but they were not required to do so – a position that President Donald Trump has been extremely critical of.
The president's feud with the NFL began on Sept. 22 during a political rally in Alabama, where Trump called any player who kneeled during the national anthem a “son of a b----” and said they should be fired.
Outraged by the president’s rhetoric, many NFL players took a knee during the singing of the national anthem at games the following Sunday, while others stayed in locker rooms or linked arms with their teammates in a show of solidarity.
In the ensuing weeks, Trump defended his initial statement, supported a boycott of the NFL and called on the league to outright ban kneeling during the national anthem.
Vice President Mike Pence also left a game early in Indianapolis when the visiting San Francisco 49ers knelt during the national anthem before facing the Colts on Oct. 8.
But despite the recent media attention, the act of peaceful protest during the national anthem at NFL games has actually been going on since the 2016 season, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the song before the team’s first preseason game.
Learn more below about the origins of kneeling during the national anthem, the latest on Trump’s feud with the NFL and more.
Kaepernick takes a knee against police brutality
Kaepernick started the 2016 preseason off by refusing to stand during the national anthem, but it wasn’t until the 49ers’ third preseason game on Aug. 26, 2016, that anyone took notice. Following the game, Kaepernick told NFL.com that he chose to remain seated during the song as a way to peacefully protest the shootings of unarmed black people and police brutality in the country.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
In a New York Times Op-Ed, 49ers safety Eric Reid said he also didn’t notice his teammate’s silent protest until that third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, but once he realized what was going on he wanted to support Kaepernick and his message.
“I approached Colin the Saturday before our next game to discuss how I could get involved with the cause but also how we could make a more powerful and positive impact on the social justice movement. We spoke at length about many of the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system,” Reid wrote in the Times op-ed. “We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the NFL, to speak for those who are voiceless.”
On Sept. 1, 2016, during the 49ers’ next preseason game, Kaepernick and Reid kneeled together during the singing of the national anthem.
The pair, Reid said, had made the decision to switch to a kneeling position after speaking with former NFL player and retired Green Beret Nate Boyer.
“We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy,” Reid wrote in the Times op-ed.
Backlash against Kaepernick as more NFL players join protest
Following that first Aug. 26, 2016, game when people took notice of Kaepernick sitting, the 49ers and the NFL issued statements, both of which acknowledged that NFL players had a choice on whether to participate in standing for the national anthem.
“Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem,” the NFL had said in a statement.
But the backlash from the court of public opinion was swift. Even as more players joined in kneeling during the national anthem and others spoke out in support of his message, Kaepernick was crowned the least liked player in the league in a survey by E-Poll Marketing Research released in September 2016, ESPN reported.
Reid had lamented in the Times that the protest touched off by Kaepernick was – and still is – misconstrued as disrespectful to the flag, military veterans and the country as a whole.
“It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest,” he wrote.
Kaepernick’s kneeling had further polarized a league that holds strong team allegiances. While those who disagreed with the protest burned the quarterback’s jersey and professed to boycott the NFL, others shouted words of encouragement from the sidelines and on social media.
Kaepernick ended the season by opting out of his contract with the 49ers. He remained unsigned in the 2017-2018 season and later filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing the league's 32 owners of collusion. He retained attorney Mark Geragos to represent him.
Kaepernick said his agent reached out to all 32 teams to make sure they were aware of his interest in playing in the 2017 season.
"Colin Kaepernick's goal has always been, and remains, to simply be treated fairly by the league he performed at the highest level for and to return to the football playing field," Geragos had said in a statement released in October.
Trump thrusts taking a knee into national spotlight again
While some NFL players continued to kneel during the NFL preseason in 2017, their actions had gone largely ignored by most media outlets that don’t already heavily cover sports – that is, until Trump spoke up.
On Sept. 22, while speaking at a political rally in Alabama, Trump told the crowd he believed that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired.
“Get that son of a b---- off the field right now. Out! He's fired,” Trump had said in reference to the kneeling protest.
The remark drew immediate criticism from members of the NFL, as well as other politicians, celebrities and activists.
Goodell said Trump’s comments revealed an “unfortunate lack of respect” for the league and its players.
"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," Goodell said in a statement released on Sept. 23.
The NFLPA also rejected Trump's comment, saying it would defend players' rights to freedom of expression.
"This union will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens," tweeted DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, referring to the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to free speech.
On Sunday, Sept. 24, teams and players across the country took a stand against the president’s comments by kneeling or linking arms with teammates. Some teams opted to stay in their locker rooms during the national anthem ahead of their respective games.
In the weeks that followed, Trump defended his original statements, rallied a boycott against the NFL and said the league should make a rule against kneeling during the national anthem.
"If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast," Trump wrote in a series of tweets on Sept. 24. "Fire or suspend!"
Trump escalated the feud even further on Oct. 11, when he suggested on Twitter that the league should no longer get tax breaks if players continue to kneel, prompting NFL team owners to consider requiring football players to stand for the national anthem.
"Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!" Trump wrote on Twitter.
Asked to explain Trump's comment on the NFL and taxes, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "The federal tax law doesn't apply here, but certainly we know that they receive tax subsidies on a variety of different levels."
As of Wednesday afternoon, the president had not commented on the NFL's new policy to fine teams for refusing to stand during the national anthem.
A country divided?
In a poll released on Oct. 11, a majority of Americans said they felt Trump's comments on NFL players kneeling were not appropriate, but those surveyed were decidedly split on how they felt about the protest on its own.
The Quinnipiac University Poll found that 58 percent of American voters felt Trump's feud with players, coaches and staff over the peaceful protest was inappropriate, while 34 percent said it was OK. Republicans were the only group in the poll that found Trump's remarks appropriate, with 67 percent siding with the president.
Americans who were polled were split nearly down the middle on whether they disapprove of kneeling during the national anthem, with 52 percent disapproving and 43 percent approving of the protest.
Trump’s initial comments back in September galvanized those who felt strongly opposed to the kneeling protest into action. Football fans once again outraged over the controversy posted videos of burned jerseys, game tickets and other memorabilia on social media under the hashtag #NFLBurnNotice.
As evidence of how polarizing the protest has become, the hashtag #ImWithKap, in reference to Kaepernick, also gained traction on Twitter. Many supporters also posted photos of themselves or others taking a knee with the hashtag #takeaknee.
On Sept. 27, members of the City Council took a knee on the steps of City Hall to show their support for the NFL and the movement Kaepernick sparked.
“We decided it was time to show again that one, we believe in free speech and two, that protesting is the most American thing one can do; it is in fact the only thing that ever propelled this country to move forward,” said Councilman Jumaane D. Williams (D-Brooklyn) of the group’s message to Trump.
Trump’s comments a distraction?
When Trump first began tweeting about the protest, many argued that the controversy was taking away from political discourse on myriad topics at the time, including a new travel ban, health care and tax reform, and the devastation in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Caught off guard by the severity of Hurricane Maria's damage to the U.S. island territory, Trump did not focus on the storm for days. He came under fire after he tweeted more than a dozen times about the NFL while only posting a series of three connected tweets about Puerto Rico in the same amount of time.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble...It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars...” Trump tweeted on Sept. 25. “...owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities - and doing well. #FEMA”
Trump insisted to reporters on Sept. 26 that he was not preoccupied with the NFL controversy and that he could multi-task. He visited Puerto Rico the following week.
But with the territory's 3.4 million people struggling to get food, water, power and shelter, Democratic leaders in Congress and some Puerto Rico residents, who are U.S. citizens, accused the Trump administration of being more sluggish in its response than to disasters on the U.S. mainland.