The NFL’s owners approved a new policy Wednesday instating a team-by-team national anthem plan that will give individual teams the right to penalize players who refuse to stand during the pre-game proceedings next season.

football players kneeling

As the Washington Post is reporting, the change eliminates a longstanding player policy that demands players stay on-field during the national anthem, and gives players the option of staying behind in the locker room to avoid penalty for disrupting the anthem. The new policy will also allow individual teams to set their own rules against players who choose to participate in protests.

“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a statement. “Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed.”

While the new rules will play out in different ways across teams, fans of the NFL took to social media to share their anger at rules that will effectively remove players’ right to free speech.

The issue of kneeling during the national anthem became controversial two years ago, when former player Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel as a form of protest against police brutality towards Black communities. His act caught on with many players, and although Kaepernick wasn’t picked up to play last season, his legacy has continued through active protests across professional and non-professional sports. The former player was namedGQ‘s Citizen of the Year for his activism in the NFL. 

The protesting did pay off in some ways, however, because at the start of last season, team owners publicly said they stood in support of players’ right to protest, agreeing to set up a fund to support Black charities across the US. Goodell acknowledged this in his statement: “The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed.”

However, he went on to also write: “It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.”

We’ll have to wait and see just how these new rules play out at the start of the upcoming season.

(Photos via Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images + Patrick Smith/Getty Images)