The National Football League (NFL) will fine teams if players on the field refuse to stand for the national anthem, the league said on Wednesday in a victory for United States President Donald Trump, who loudly demanded an end to such protests last year.
Some NFL players knelt during the anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men, sparking a controversy as the president criticised the players for being unpatriotic.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Wednesday a new policy that will fine teams if players on the field fail to stand during the Star-Spangled Banner. Players who choose not to stand may remain in the locker room until after the anthem is finished.
The NFL Players Association criticised the new policy, saying it was not consulted and it may issue a challenge should it violate the collective bargaining agreement.
Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said the owners’ decision was made out of concern for the NFL’s bottom line and fears that Mr Trump would turn his political base against the league, the most popular professional sports organisation in the US.
“This is not patriotism. Don’t get it confused,” the two-time Super Bowl champion wrote on Twitter. “These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it,” he said, adding he would be committed to using his platform to effect change.
The kneeling controversy rattled a US$14 billion (Dh51bn) industry, and the new policy attempts to resolve a distraction for the owners, said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising.
“For advertisers, football’s still a great buy, reaching a market - young males mostly. Ratings have dipped a little bit,” Mr Dorfman said, adding the NFL was “still one of the strongest live events you can buy in television”.
The protests, in a league where African-Americans make up most of the players, continued for much of the past season, with some players kneeling when the anthem was played and others standing arm-in-arm in solidarity.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the protests in 2016, and when he was shunned by all 32 teams in the league, going unsigned for the entire 2017 season, players and commentators questioned whether he was being blackballed by the owners.
He has filed a grievance against the league.
The protests started to fizzle late in the season when the NFL said it would donate US$89 million over seven years to social justice causes.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
The NFL last year rejected Mr Trump’s calls to punish players who protested but said the league’s players “should” stand during the anthem.
Mr Goodell, in Wednesday’s statement, defended the patriotism of NFL players.
“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,” the commissioner said.
The players’ union in its statement said 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”.