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NFL And Players Agree To Not Enforce Controversial Anthem Rules, For Now

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The NFL and its players union have hit the pause button on the league's controversial new policy requiring players to stand for the national anthem. Late last night, the two sides released a joint statement announcing what they are calling a standstill agreement. And let's talk about that with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hi, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what's a standstill agreement?

GOLDMAN: Well, in this case, it means the union puts on hold a grievance it filed last week against the new NFL anthem policy. And then the more significant part, and I'm quoting here from the joint statement you mention - "no new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks." The two sides are asking for this freeze while they hold discussions to work out a resolution to the anthem issue.

GREENE: That's an issue that obviously a lot of people have been grappling with for some time, and it's caused a lot of controversy. So the new policy on hold for now. Can you just remind us about that new policy?

GOLDMAN: It was approved by the NFL in May. It requires players who are on the field to stand for the anthem. If they don't want to, they can stay in a locker room. The league approved it after taking a hit last season from fans and sponsors complaining about the protests, which, of course, David, began in 2016, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first started taking a knee to protest police treatment of minorities and social inequality. And the new policy in the league's opinion was the best way to return the focus to football.

GREENE: OK. But if no new rules are going to be enforced, does that mean that players can once again protest during the anthem if they want to?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, you would think so. I mean, the old policy basically suggested players stand but didn't require it. So it appears that's the law of the league again for now. But remember, there are no anthems playing. I mean, the first preseason game is August 2. One can imagine a race against time with these discussions between the league and union reps hoping they agree to a resolution before August 2.

GREENE: Well, speaking of timing, I mean, why does this announcement come out so late on a Thursday night?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. According to ESPN, the two sides were ready to announce it today, Friday, but they reportedly decided to move things up to last night after what happened earlier in the day. And what happened earlier, there were some headlines Thursday saying the Miami Dolphins were ready to punish players protesting during the anthem by suspending them four games. Those were the early reports.

Now, once more information came out, the story wasn't quite as dramatic as that. According to a team source, the Dolphins were filing routine documents to the NFL about possible punishment for players who violate conduct rules. Every team is required to file these policies before the start of training camp. And the Dolphins were one of the first to file because they were one of the first to open their training camp. I spoke with a Dolphins team source. The person told me nothing has been decided about potential punishment for protesting players. The team will address the issue once the season starts. All options are still open.

GREENE: But it sounds like even if the Miami story was cooling down, it might have bothered the NFL enough or worried them that they decided, like, let's freeze this for the moment.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. You know, we haven't heard the NFL directly answer that - what you just said. But league insiders certainly are pointing to the Miami story, plus the report earlier this week that a Tennessee Titans player said he was ready to defy the new policy and protest during the anthem and accept the punishment. You know, the NFL wanted the focus back on football, but certainly this week, the focus was squarely back on the anthem issue.

GREENE: NPR's Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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