ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
NFL team owners today unanimously approved a new policy. In essence, it is not OK for National Football League players to kneel during the national anthem before games. If they don't want to stand, they can stay in their locker rooms. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us now. Hi, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what this new policy says.
GOLDMAN: I'm going to give you the official NFL language, OK? All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. A club will be fined by the league if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
Now, this idea of respect is being questioned. Who exactly determines what respect looks like? Could standing but raising a fist or linking arms as many players did last season - could that be respectful? Now, at least one owner, Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was quoted as saying those actions would be considered disrespectful.
The new policy is not a blanket order that every player has to be on the field and standing for the national anthem. As you mentioned, players who don't want to stand can stay in the locker room or, say, a stadium tunnel until after the anthem has finished playing.
SHAPIRO: So as we've said, this was unanimous by the team owners.
SHAPIRO: But beyond that circle, it's kind of controversial. What has the reaction been?
GOLDMAN: It is. Players' union is not happy. The union says owners took the vote without consulting them. And the union says it's ready to challenge the decision. Among the players' reaction - particularly interesting to note the reactions by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. Kaepernick of course was the first to protest back in 2016. He took a knee to draw attention to issues of social inequality and police treatment of minorities. Eric Reid was his then-teammate on the San Francisco 49ers and the first player to join Kaepernick in the protests.
Both men are free agents and haven't been signed by any teams. They are suing NFL owners for alleged collusion. And today, their response was simply to retweet a tweet by their attorney, Mark Geragos, which posted an article on the new policy and the hashtag #NFLCollusion.
SHAPIRO: The owners approved this policy at their spring meeting in Atlanta. We're months away from the most intense part of a debate over the kneeling protest. So why is this happening now?
GOLDMAN: Well, you know, it's not really out of the blue. You know, as you mentioned, this issue has been raging since 2016 when Kaepernick first took a knee, then last year President Trump poured gasoline on the fire when he called protesting players SOBs, thoroughly politicizing the issue.
And then last October, there was a meeting between players and owners about the protests. The New York Times obtained audio from that meeting, and it showed there's still a tremendous amount of angst about the issue. Some owners are really worried about this - the protests spilling into another season and causing even more upset among some fans and sponsors and advertisers.
SHAPIRO: And so just briefly, what do you think is going to happen when the season kicks off in September?
GOLDMAN: Well, you know, the NFL would like this to have solved everything. The owners and Goodell said they hope the new policy helps return the focus to football. But you can envision different scenarios this season. What if a bunch of players take their protests into the locker rooms, then come out onto the field after the anthem? Will fans boo them? Will some players challenge the new rule and do something owners regard disrespectful during the anthem? So no, it doesn't appear today's announcement is the end, especially if the union mounts a challenge.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thanks, Tom.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.