LOS ANGELES • National Football League (NFL) owners agreed to a new policy on Wednesday and players must stand during the United States national anthem or incur fines for their clubs, unless they stay in the locker room.
The issue of how to handle player protests of kneeling during the pre-game playing of The Star-Spangled Banner has loomed over the NFL club owners' meeting in Atlanta, with the sport anxious to avoid a repeat of the controversy that divided the league last season.
America's most popular sport found itself at the centre of a political firestorm last year after President Donald Trump described any player who kneeled to draw attention to racial injustice as a "son of b****" who was insulting the flag and the nation.
The remarks prompted a wave of kneeling protests across the league in September, angering some fans and placing several conservative, Trump-supporting team owners in an awkward position as NFL television ratings dropped.
With the NFL's leadership reluctant to issue a blanket decree ordering players to stand for the anthem, the deal approved Wednesday represents a compromise.
Currently, all players are required to be on the field during the anthem. The new policy removes that requirement, allowing players who do not wish to stand to remain in the locker room.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said teams would be fined if players came onto the field and did not stand for the anthem, with teams deciding what punishment if any to pass along to kneeling players.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the protests in 2016 as a way of drawing attention to police brutality, social injustice and racial inequity - following a wave of deaths involving black men during confrontations with law enforcement.
In 2017, he was unable to get an NFL job. Free agents Kaepernick and Eric Reid are suing the NFL, saying league owners colluded to keep them unsigned as retaliation for the protests.