New national anthem policy a low point for free speech in the NFL

Dolphins players Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas wait in the tunnel during the anthem before an October 2017 game. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

How gracious of the NFL to allow its players the privilege of hanging on to their precious freedom of speech.

As long as they exercise it where no one can hear them.

Just when it seemed like Roger Goodell and the owners couldn’t botch the national anthem issue any worse, here comes this week’s so-called solution. Never underestimate this league’s capacity for debacles.

The new rule is essentially this: You will stand for the anthem and “show respect” or stay out of sight in the tunnel. That’s identical to what the Dolphins implemented last season with minimal explanation before rescinding it within weeks at the request of their players.

National anthem at Hard Rock Stadium. (Bill Ingram/The Post)

It’s bad that the new policy is full of holes, putting coaches in a spot where they’ll have to uphold something ambiguous and setting up what they’ll see as needless conflicts between them and their players.

It’s bad that the players had zero input, undercutting all the propaganda the NFL puts forth about this league being a partnership and how football is family.

It’s bad that this is framed as an issue of patriotism, when few actions are as patriotic as risking future employment prospects because you want this country to be better. The protesting players aren’t making an anti-American, anti-military statement, and Donald Trump doesn’t get the final word on how their demonstrations should be interpreted.

It’s even a little bad that the league wasn’t sophisticated enough to do its dirty work without tripping over itself. The new protocol passed in a slipshod process that sounded like a straw poll. It took mere minutes before some owners voiced dissent and less than a day before ESPN uncovered that there was never an official vote despite Goodell declaring there was unanimous support.

But the real problem isn’t the flaws in the policy. It’s the compulsion to form a policy at all.

While the league might technically have the legal right to limit how players express themselves in the workplace, why does it want to? Does a 10 percent drop in ratings — at least some of which is self-inflicted by how much the NFL has diluted its product — for what is still by far the nation’s most popular television program justify quieting the men who make it worth watching? Just because it can doesn’t mean it should.

Dolphins players kneel during their game at the Jets last season. (AP)

The protests have been twisted by talking heads and politicians, and the actual message has been grossly misrepresented. It’s not anti-police, anti-military, anti-Republican or anti-white. How many times do the players have to say that? It wasn’t even anti-Trump until he went on the offensive.

It constantly needs to be restated that their purpose is to call for racial equality, which still eludes our country. Shining a light on it is a positive for all of us.

It’s not a conversation that needs to be shut down. Even the players who disagree with the demonstrations ought to bristle at the league clamping down on their colleagues’ freedom.

The protests initially prompted the NFL to launch a campaign and a series of meetings aimed at coming alongside the protesting players, but the new anthem policy brings motives into question. Was it all just to get them to stop kneeling?

Two days before it handed down the anthem policy, the league worked with the Players Coalition to finalize a $90 million commitment to social justice programs. That money will help people regardless of the true intent behind it, but it’ll won’t feel so heartfelt if it eventually surfaces that it was meant to balance out what came next.

Zeroing in on South Florida, look at the potential mess this creates for the Miami Dolphins, who had a hard enough time navigating the situation the past two years.

The Dolphins and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality have many meaningful efforts running locally and nationally, and a lot of them are geared toward social justice.

Stephen Ross has a track record of working toward racial equality. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

They do extensive work with Miami-Dade County schools in the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project, which uses mentors and educators to help minority students graduate and become men who will contribute to society. Ross personally funds the budget for R.I.S.E. The organization awarded grants to 11 community-driven groups this year, including several that focus on empowering young black people. They also facilitate various events that with youth programs and local police departments.

Ross’ passion is evident, but he doesn’t have the answer for this issue. He was the league’s most vocal owner backing players who protested in 2016. Last year he said he wants players to stand. He’s publicly agreed with some of Trump’s comments on it and denounced others. No doubt he’s not on board with the president’s most recent pronouncement that “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country” if you don’t stand for the anthem.

Ross was in the room when the NFL laid out its policy, and there’s been no indication of what he voiced in there. He hasn’t issued a statement.

The most prominent protestor on his team is receiver Kenny Stills, an exemplary employee in every way. Stills is what every company wants. He’s arguably the best skill player on the roster, an ideal leader in the locker room and winner of the team’s community service award the last two seasons.

The Dolphins aren’t really going to do battle with Kenny Stills, are they? The guy who does everything right?

Gase wants to devote all of his attention to what’s on the field, not the anthem issue. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

If he kneels, as he has the last two seasons, he’ll be in violation of league and team rules (the NFL left room for organizations to formulate their own policy as long as it’s compatible with the league’s). It’s unfathomable that Adam Gase would consider penalizing Stills over this with even so much as a light fine.

That might be the most complicated individual scenario in the league. It’ll be much simpler for teams when it’s the 53rd guy on the roster.

Gase, by the way, obviously wants no part of any of this. Every waking hour is devoted to scheming outside zone runs and bubble screens. Someone has to tell him when a holiday’s coming up or when hurricane preparations need to be made. For better or worse, he spends little time concerning himself with anything beyond the football field. He truly just wants to coach.

This feels like a dark hour for free speech, but there’s an upside to the fiasco. Trying to stifle a movement invariably makes it louder, and some players who have been wavering about whether to get involved will be compelled to join it.

It looks like players are still allowed to raise a fist or find some other way to express themselves as long as don’t drop to a knee, and the media will report vigilantly on players who stay in the locker room and continue enhance their platform.

Maybe fans will take up the cause and kneel. Goodell can’t fine them.

Best of all, this policy might very well crumble before the NFL ever gets a chance to enforce it. There are months to go before the first preseason game and longer until opening weekend, and this edict hardly looks sturdy enough to last that long.

[It was easy to forget about Dolphins LB Raekwon McMillan over the past year, but don’t sleep on him now]

[Who wins a race between Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Kenny Stills?]

[Reshad Jones, Dolphin for life?]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.