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Stock photograph dated September 24, 2018 and released May 23, 2018, showing players of the New England Patriots prostrate on their knees as they listen to the national anthem of the United States before the start of a match against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium, in Foxboro, United States. EFE / John Cetrino
Stock photograph dated September 24, 2018, and released May 23, 2018, showing players of the New England Patriots prostrate on their knees as they listen to the national anthem of the United States before the start of a match against the Houston Texans…

The NFL's National Anthem decision is an insult to democracy

The National Football League's decision to prohibit gestures of protest among its players raises the question: conciliation or hypocrisy?

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The First Amendment's blurry lines have gradually transformed into advantageous cracks for the Trump Administration.

The rights to freedom of speech and to protest have ceased to be absolute guarantees and have become negotiable issues, especially after the National Football League forbade its players to kneel during the National Anthem "without leaving themselves open to punishment of their teams facing possible financial penalties," the New York Times reported.

It's not a commitment it's an imposition.

In a statement issued by the NFL Players Association, the signatories claimed that the league "had not consulted the players' union in creating the new protocol", also accusing league officials of "hypocrisy."

"Our union will review the new 'policy' and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement," they said.

For his part, the union's executive director for external affairs, George Atallah, said the new rules, "are not a compromise," as the Times reported.

Political censorship

The African-American player Malcolm Jenkins, safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and leader of the Coalition of Players, denounced the league's measure as an attempt to "silence the players."

"What the NFL owners did today was thwart the players' constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial inequality in our country," Jenkins said in a statement. "Everyone loses when voices get stifled."

For his part, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Jeff Robinson, issued a statement saying, "Protest isn't supposed to be comfortable."

"It's not supposed to happen in the shadows. It's supposed to disrupt. Patriotism is demanding America uphold the ideals it was founded on: equality and justice for all," he said. "Patriotism is pledging allegiance to democratic values, not to symbols or songs. Patriotism is dissent."

Politics is not just a matter of parties

Since 2016, professional players have protested in silence against police brutality and racial inequality in the country during the National Anthem, from the moment San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, sat down and then knelt during the protocol, starting a new symbol of protest.

It was President Trump's anger that drew media attention to the gesture, taking it to a political level, after his habit of taking things as a personal affront.

During a September 2017 political rally in Alabama, Trump told NFL owners that they should "fire" players who kneel.

After the decision of the league to adopt coercive measures, the president said he was pleased, although he assured that if a player did not participate in the national anthem, "maybe you shouldn't be in the country."

Ratings or proselytism?

Last season, NFL ratings fell by 10 percent, something that some team owners have attributed to the players' protest gestures during the National Anthem, CNN explained.

Those who voted in favor of the new measure in the league have used this as an argument.

For example, Giants owner John Mara said that "there is no question (the protest) had an impact on the business," and Houston Texas owner Bob McNair agreed, adding that, "it is important to pay attention to fans' concerns because without them you are dead."

However, presidential interventionism wasn't well received by everyone.

"The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission, and I don't feel is in the best interests of America," said Robert K. Kraft, owner of the Patriots and a longtime Trump supporter. "It's divisive and it's horrible," he added, according to the Times report.

Out of sight, out of mind

For the directors of the league, the solution was simple: if you don't want to stand for the National Anthem, stay in the locker room.

While players were previously required to be on the field when following protocol, the new NFL measure will allow players to stay in the locker room and not "show respect to the flag and the anthem", if so they decide, to avoid that they continue repeating symbolic gestures in front of the television cameras.

The executive director of the Association of Players of the NFL, DeMaurice Smith, resorted to Twitter to strongly reject the measure, ensuring that "history has taught us that both patriotism and protest are like water; if the force is strong enough it cannot be suppressed. Today, the CEO's of the NFL created a rule that people who hate autocracies should reject," he wrote.

"Management has chosen to quash the same freedom of speech that protects someone who wants to salute the flag in an effort to prevent someone who does not wish to do so," Smith said, according to ESPN's transcript. "The sad irony of this rule is that anyone who wants to express their patriotism is subject to the whim of a person who calls himself 'owner'. I know that not all NFL CEO's are for this, and I know that true American patriots are not cheering today."

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