ATLANTA (AP) — With its popularity threatened and critics stretching all the way to the White House, the NFL just wanted to get past the debate over taking a knee during the national anthem.
Put the focus back on football.
Instead, the league seemed to muddle the divisive issue even more with a new policy that stirred up defenders of free speech, prompted a couple of owners to quickly backtrack and raised all sorts of potential questions heading into next season.
After a tumultuous season, NFL owners wrapped up their spring meeting in Atlanta by announcing Wednesday that players would be required to stand for the national anthem if they're on the field before a game, but gave them the option of staying in the locker room if they wanted to carry on the Colin Kaepernick-inspired campaign against police brutality and social injustice.
FILE - In this Oct. 29, 2017, file photo, Houston Texans players kneel and stand during the singing of the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, in Seattle. NFL owners have approved a new policy aimed at addressing the firestorm over national anthem protests, permitting players to stay in the locker room during the "The Star-Spangled Banner" but requiring them to stand if they come to the field. The decision was announced Wednesday, May 23, 2018, by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during the league's spring meeting in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Commissioner Roger Goodell called it a compromise that respected the wishes of everyone, from those who consider "The Star-Spangled Banner" a sacred part of the American experience to those who believe the right to protest during the anthem is also in the best tradition of a free but imperfect society.
Yet, it was clear to everyone that the owners wanted to quell a firestorm by moving any further protests away from the public eye — especially if it lured back disgruntled fans while appeasing President Donald Trump and his vocal base of support.
Kneel if you like.
But stay out of sight.
"This is a fear of the diminished bottom line," said defensive end Chris Long of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles . "It's also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don't get it confused. These owners don't love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it."
Trump stoked the issue during a political campaign, saying the NFL should fire any players who kneel during the anthem . During an interview that aired Thursday morning on "Fox & Friends," he praised the league for doing "the right thing."
"You have to stand proudly for the national anthem," Trump said. Or "you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there. Maybe they shouldn't be in the country."
Vice President Mike Pence called it "a win for the fans, a win for (the president), and a win for America."
The NFL didn't consult the players' union on its new policy, though Goodell stressed that the league had talked to countless players over the past year and was committed both financially and philosophically to the fight for social justice .
"We want people to be respectful of the national anthem. We want people to stand," Goodell said. "We've been very sensitive on making sure that we give players choices, but we do believe that moment is an important moment and one that we are going to focus on."
In an attempt to quell a potential challenge from the NFL Players Association, the league said any violations of the new rules would result in fines against teams — not individual players.
But the league also gave teams the option of developing their own workplace rules, which many players interpreted as a backhanded way of subjecting them to fines — or worse — should they carry on with the protests.
"If the team says 'this is what we're doing,' and ownership (does too), you either deal with it or you're probably going to get cut," Pittsburgh Steelers guard Ramon Foster said.
The head of the NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith , angrily denounced the NFL's decision and called it a blow against America's most basic rights — freedom of speech.
Since the new policy is a change in the terms and conditions of employment that was not collectively bargained, any attempts to fine individual players would surely be opposed by the union.
"History has taught us that both patriotism and protest are like water; if the force is strong enough it cannot be suppressed," Smith wrote on Twitter. "The CEOs of the NFL created a rule that people who hate autocracies should reject."
But many players are mindful that Kaepernick, who began the protest movement in 2016 during his final year at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, didn't play at all last season and still hasn't been picked up by another team . They're also aware of the plight faced by safety Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick's former teammates and another protest leader, who is also out of work with the upcoming season just a few months away.
Washington defensive back Josh Norman said the owners have a right to decide what the players can and cannot do, a sentiment shared by many of his colleagues around the league.
"They've pretty much got the teams," Norman said. "They make those decisions. We've just got to go through with it, I guess."
A handful of outspoken players vowed to carry on the cause, including Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.
"I will not let it silence me or stop me from fighting," he said. "This has never been about taking a knee, raising a fist or anyone's patriotism, but doing what we can to effect real change for real people."
While Goodell said the new policy was unanimously approved by the owners, CEO Jed York of the 49ers — Kaepernick's former team — contradicted the commissioner by saying he abstained. York said he didn't feel comfortable making a decision without directly involving the players' union.
New York Jets owner Christopher Johnson took a similar approach. He said his team will pay any fines doled out by the league, without passing on punishment to the players.
"I will support our players wherever we land as a team," Johnson said. "Our focus is not on imposing any club rules, fines or restrictions."
So, what happens next?
The NFL just wants the issue to go away.
Instead, it raised a whole new batch of questions.
Column: Score one for Jerry Jones and billionaire owners
By TIM DAHLBERG , AP Sports Columnist
NFL owners were busy handing out prizes at their meeting in Atlanta, doling out Super Bowls to various cities and giving Nashville the 2019 draft.
Then they gave one to themselves: A new anthem policy adopted with the fervent hope that the protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick will go away and the golden goose that is the NFL will continue to soar untouched.
FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, file photo, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif. NFL owners have approved a new policy aimed at addressing the firestorm over national anthem protests, permitting players to stay in the locker room during the "The Star-Spangled Banner" but requiring them to stand if they come to the field. The decision was announced Wednesday, May 23, 2018, by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during the league's spring meeting in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Stay in the locker room if you wish during the national anthem. But don't even think about kneeling on the sideline where you can be seen.
This wasn't an attempt to settle a real issue, not even close. This was strictly for self-preservation and to keep any protest off the TV cameras and away from the prying eyes of the current tenant of the White House.
And guess what? It just might work.
Not for the players, who will lose whatever rights they had left. But they've always been expendable anyway, in a league that for years stood by doing nothing as their brains were scrambled by hits on the field.
No, this one is for Jerry Jones and his fellow billionaires.
They're the ones who want desperately to move any protests about social injustice to the locker room, where no one but the towel guy will notice. They're the ones who called the new policy a compromise, yet made no real concessions to protesting players and didn't even bother consulting the players' union on the plan.
Their new rules are as simple as they are absolute: If you want to protest, do so by staying in the locker room during the national anthem.
Then get your rear out there and play a game.
Vice President Mike Pence was quick to cheer, sending out a tweet with the hashtag #Winning. It was President Donald Trump himself who really put the heat on NFL owners last season by saying it was a disgrace to allow players to take a knee during the anthem.
Then as television ratings sank and sponsors started to get nervous, owners figured they had better move to protect their cash cow.
Meanwhile, players have little choice but to accept it — assuming they wish to remain employed.
"That's their decision to make," Redskins corner Josh Norman said. "They've pretty much got the teams. They make those decisions. We just got to go through with it, I guess."
Though the NFL was quick to triumph the fact the new policy passed by a unanimous vote, it's clear some owners are not as comfortable with it as others. The Buffalo Bills issued a statement saying they would rather work closely with players on social issues than issue fines for kneeling during the anthem, and the head of Kaepernick's former team said his team abstained from the vote.
San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York went a step further by saying other measures might also be taken, including a suspension of all concession sales during the national anthem.
"If we want to be sacrosanct, if we want to honor the flag, we've got to make sure we go through a litany of things," York said. "We're not going to force people to stand in their seats, but we're certainly going to make sure we're not profiting during that two or three minutes of time during the game."
That, at least, is a step in the right direction. If players can't kneel during the anthem, there's no reason the beer guy should be able to keep pouring $12 brews.
Let's just hope the anthem police have some sympathy for fans who might forget to take off their hats during the song.
So now the game will move on from who is kneeling on the sideline to who is in the locker room during the anthem. Fans and television cameras will scan the sidelines to see who is missing, and those who want to make political hay of it on either side will duly take note.
In the long run, though, the issue will likely fade away, just like NFL owners want it to. And that may not be such a bad thing, since the original purpose of highlighting social injustice has become twisted instead into a debate over the patriotism of NFL players.
Most of them are very patriotic indeed, just like most of the fans who watch them. They also have the right to speak up and protest outside their workplace, just like the fans who watch them.
But the bottom line is that NFL owners have every right to protect their business. They pay the salaries, and they decide the rules.
Now everyone else can decide whether they want to keep playing along.