You know the NFL Players Association wanted nothing to do with this. Neither the NFL or its players’ union wants to spend one more minute talking about the national anthem, and what sort of body posture we should all be adopting when it’s played. The debate is bad for labor relations, bad for image and, most crucially, in this high-profile wing of the entertainment industry, bad for business.
But the NFLPA couldn’t sit this one out. Tuesday morning, the organization distributed an unsigned statement noting that the union has filed a grievance on behalf of its athletes, challenging the anthem policy that NFL owners ratified at their annual meeting in May.
My reaction? What took ’em so long?
To be honest, I’m a little weary of this debate myself. I’m not past the social problems that encouraged Colin Kaepernick and other football players to take a knee in the first place. I’m still interested in discussions of what patriotism truly means, and what constitutes appropriate behavior in the workplace. Those are meaty topics. But I’m sick of the pregame head count.
The NFL anthem debate — I know players aren’t actually protesting the “Star-Spangled Banner”; sorry, I use the shorthand sometimes — has turned us all into avid birders, peering through binoculars and exclaiming, “Ooh, there’s one!” before every game. We’re largely ignoring the issues at this point. We’re just keeping score.
But the NFL’s new policy isn’t an extension of the debate. It’s a new inroad into players’ rights, and the NFLPA isn’t merely justified in saying so. It’s obligated as a union.
Twitter was in a furor over the NFLPA’s grievance Tuesday. All the old favorites came down the Hit Parade: When NFL players are on the job, team owners can tell them to do anything they want. Overpaid, babied football players should be fired for disrespecting the flag, our armed forces and Francis Scott Key. NFL ratings will continue to plummet because these guys JUST DON’T GET THE MESSAGE.
I could write a whole column about how all of these points are wrong. Fortunately, no lecture is necessary, because all of these pro-ownership, anti-player arguments are simply irrelevant in this case. They’re part of the backstory, not the story, and you’re missing the point entirely if you think otherwise.
Here’s the key portion of this morning’s public statement: “The union’s claim is that this new policy, imposed by the NFL’s governing body without consultation with the NFLPA, is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement and infringes on player rights.”
I know, it’s a sentence that only a lawyer could love. But you would do yourself a service by taking a closer look at those 31 words.
The NFL and its players, you may have heard, are governed by a collective bargaining agreement. Representatives of both sides signed the latest version in 2011; it will expire after the 2020 season. The CBA governs all sorts of wonky matters and includes wildly entertaining sections like “Veteran Per Diem” and “Electronic Medical Record System.”
Basically, there is almost no formal interaction between NFL owners and players that is not governed by the CBA. Collective bargaining has been recognized in this country at least since 1935, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act.