Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As NFL Kicks Off Preseason, Anthem Controversy Is Front And Center


The NFL preseason kicks off tonight with Chicago and Baltimore playing in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Now normally, this game doesn't get much attention, but this year it will, especially the first couple minutes before the playing starts. The national anthem is the focus. This issue of players kneeling in protest during the song is not resolved, although the league and its players are trying. NPR's Tom Goldman has the story.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The NFL's preferred soundtrack...


GOLDMAN: ...Is about to compete again with this.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) And the home of the brave.


GOLDMAN: That was last season, when fans in New England booed Patriots players taking a knee during the anthem. There's no reason to think the reaction will be different this season. The runup to tonight's game has been contentious. Here's Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.


JERRY JONES: Our policy is that you stand at the anthem, toe on the line.

GOLDMAN: San Francisco defensive back Richard Sherman called Jones' comment the old plantation mentality. Philadelphia defensive back Malcolm Jenkins said Jones is a bully.


MALCOLM JENKINS: It's unfortunate that you have owners like him that use his position to intimidate and intentionally thwart even the idea of his players thinking individually or having a voice.

GOLDMAN: And then President Trump weighed in last month with a tweet telling the NFL commissioner to punish players who kneel in protest. The NFL and its players union have been meeting to figure out a solution. The league's directive in May that players on the field must stand for the anthem and those who choose not to can stay in the locker room - that's on hold, as is the union's grievance against it. But can they figure this out?

CHARLES K. ROSS: No, I don't see any really down-the-middle resolution.

GOLDMAN: Charles K. Ross is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Mississippi. He thinks the NFL and its players may get back to something similar to what the league imposed in May, but that could leave both sides dissatisfied.

Protesting players stuffed away in the locker room feels like an affront to free speech. Standing for the anthem under the threat of fines or suspension is like forced patriotism. Ross does think the players have the upper hand in crafting a final policy.

ROSS: There is no game - there are no stadiums, there are no nachos, there's no beer - if these African-American players, for the most part, are not out there on the field producing a certain level of entertainment over the course of about 3 1/2 hours that everybody's willing to pay.

GOLDMAN: The players should have the power, says Ross, and the right to demonstrate. The country, after all, he says, was born out of protest. But according to Rich Lowry, the way this protest has evolved isn't working. He's editor-in-chief of the conservative National Review magazine.

RICH LOWRY: So it's a protest that's become about the protest itself. I think that's self-defeating.

GOLDMAN: Try as the players might to tell Americans that kneeling is not against the flag or the military, Lowry says enough people interpret the protests that way, even though the demonstrations are about police mistreatment of minorities and social inequality. So Lowry says the sweet spot of compromise happens when the players agree to stand for the anthem.

LOWRY: This is something we're going to do as a matter of course, as a matter of respect for the country and for this national symbol. And we'll take our political views and express them in different venues and in different ways.

GOLDMAN: For now, there will be games and anthems and, perhaps, protest. There's one game tonight. Next Thursday, 12, which could provide the kind of optics the league is dreading again. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on