Jets chairman: I'll bear the burden of the fine if any player wants to kneel during the anthem

Will any owner feel differently? Remember, some owners locked arms with the players on the field during the anthem last year. That was strategic: They were trying to find a sweet spot in which they formally discouraged kneeling to please right-wing fans while showing solidarity with the players’ right to make their political point to please left-wing ones. If nothing else, staying friendly-ish with the players avoids inflaming the issue by cracking down in a heavy-handed way, which might annoy them and lead to more intrusive protests.

Although that’s probably going to happen anyway, right? One of the dumbest things about the new policy is that the issue had died down a bit over the course of the 2017 season. Now it’s back, front and center, with players being told what they can and can’t do. The league’s practically begging them to defy the new ban.

Assuming then that every owner follows Christopher Johnson’s lead here and agrees not to pass along any team fine to the players themselves, the new policy is meaningless. If you insist on kneeling during the anthem, the team’s mega-rich owner gets a financial wrist-slap. So what?

“I do not like imposing any club-specific rules,” Johnson said. “If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players. Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest. There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”

Johnson has been highly critical of the possibility that owners would require players to stand. During the owners meetings in Orlando in March, Johnson told reporters he didn’t feel a change in protocol was necessary. “I know there’s some discussion of keeping players off the field until after the anthem. I think that’s a particularly bad idea . . . I just think that trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea.”

Whether intentional or not, Johnson’s insistence on paying the fine is a shrewd way to keep the protesting to a minimum. Again, by minimizing the antagonism between players and owners he’s giving the players less reason to make a point of kneeling. Tell a man he can’t say what he wants to say about politics and he’s that much more likely to want to say it. Johnson’s defusing the situation by insisting on paying the fine himself.

In fact, if other owners plan to do that too, I wonder if the new policy is really just an empty sop to right-wing fans. The games will go on just as they did, with players protesting if they like and team owners kicking in their spare change to pay the fines, but fans who care about the issue can point to the new policy and claim a symbolic victory. Like this guy, for instance:

If the goal here was to get a toothless sanction imposed to force the NFL to show that it cares about right-wing fans’ opinion, mission accomplished. If the goal was to convince the players or their sympathizers that kneeling during the anthem is a tasteless form of protest — or, more ambitiously, that their feelings about racism and police brutality are unfounded — then it’s more likely to backfire than to succeed.

Best-case scenario: Players who want to protest will now do so by choosing to stay in the locker room for the anthem rather than coming out to honor the country. Why that beats quietly kneeling, I have no idea. And the new policy has a loophole: If a player does choose to come out for the anthem, he’s required to stand and “show respect” but “respect” is left undefined. Can a player raise his fist or protest on his feet some other way? That thought’s already occurred to Richard Sherman, for one.

One footnote to this. The league had reportedly been considering upping the penalty for kneeling during the anthem from a team fine to an actual penalty during the game. According to SI, one idea considered and then abandoned was to leave it “up to the home team on whether both teams come out of the locker room for the anthem, and, should teams come out, 15-yard penalties could be assessed for kneeling.” Would that have meant 15-yard penalties for each individual act of kneeling or a single 15-yard penalty on the team if any player knelt? If the former, you could conceivably have had an absurd scenario in which a team would start the game backed up to its own one-yard line if a bunch of its own players knelt before kickoff or starting on the other team’s one-yard line if a bunch of their players knelt.

More likely what would have happened is that the teams would have conferred beforehand to see how may players planned to kneel and then an equal number on the other side would kneel, just so that the penalties would offset and neither team would be punished. That’s probably why the league abandoned the idea — it’d be too easy to game it. But in-game penalties might be the only thing capable of enforcing the “no kneeling” rule. Asking a team owner to pay a fine is asking nothing. Asking him and his players to sacrifice a competitive advantage is asking a lot.

Update: Yeah, it’s gonna backfire.