The Pittsburgh Steelers come out of the tunnel after the national anthem prior to their game against the Chicago Bears. (USA Today Sports)
The Pittsburgh Steelers come out of the tunnel after the national anthem prior to their game against the Chicago Bears. (USA Today Sports)

By the end of the 2017 season, there was very little attention paid to which players were standing and which were kneeling during national anthems played in NFL stadiums. The story, for all intents and purposes, was starting to wither out after it had ignited the country in debate for more than a year.

But the league’s owners this offseason – in an attempt to quash the story completely, it seems, or perhaps to flex their muscles on it – lit a new match to the anthem debate by passing a new national anthem policy at Wednesday’s owners meetings in Atlanta. They voted unanimously to allow players to privately protest if they want by opting to remain in the locker room during the anthem. However, players who do choose to be on the sideline during the performance of it now are subject to fines for failing to show a proper measure of respect.

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

This story is not going away now. The NFL ensured this on Wednesday.

That vaguely worded policy not only opens up interpretation issues, but it also has started to stir the minds of some players who now can be fined. Kneeling, which Colin Kaepernick first used as a sign of protest in the 2016 preseason, is most definitely considered a form of disrespect by now; whether arm-linking, fist-raising or any other type of demonstration is included fits into that gray area that the policy’s wording doesn’t allow yet.

At this point, we don’t even know how much the fines will be for – we’ve already had one acting owner, Jets chairman Christopher Johnson, who said his team’s players need not worry about incurring fines from the team. If fines and/or suspensions for anthem-related actions are handed down from a league level, Johnson told Newsday: “If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players. Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest.

“There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”

There appear to be far more questions than answers at this point on how this all will go down – from all sides.

PFW reached out to more than a dozen players by text messages and calls on Tuesday following the policy change to get a sliver of their reactions. Some chose not to respond or were busy taking part in their respective teams’ OTA sessions (only 10 of the 32 teams were not scheduled to be on the field Wednesday). Others responded, in one form or another, with a “no comment” on the matter. One player said he would get back to us after he’s had a chance to talk to the players’ union, or perhaps more of his teammates.

But three players agreed to talk to us – two by phone, one by text – with the condition that they remain anonymous for this story.

What we can reveal: One player, a seventh-year veteran who was currently an unsigned free agent, said he had never knelt during a game before but was a quiet supporter of Kaepernick’s message and freedom of speech. The other two, fourth- and sixth-year veterans, also had not been active kneeling participants but said they were irritated or confused by the league's recent policy change.

“They didn’t first talk to [the NFLPA], which makes me think they just want to push us around,” Player A, the fourth-year vet, said.

Added Player B, the sixth-year vet who has been an active participant in NFLPA matters in the past: “I am not sure if they have to do that, but what’s the harm in talking to the union before making this a rule?”

Already, two of the three players we spoke with said they have exchanged calls and texts with teammates to discuss the matter. (Those efforts started slowly, with more than two-thirds of the league’s teams taking part in offseason training while the vote was passing, but they indicated the communication has picked up throughout the day.)

Some, they said, are planning on self-invoking a social-media hiatus in order to first take the temperature of the players’ reaction from around the league. Others are actively planning how to respond. Some don't quite know what to think.

Among the suggestions that have been tossed around in their different interactions, the three players said:

* Stand for the anthem. Play by the rules. Find other methods of raising social awareness, essentially circumventing the league’s draconian policy altogether.

* Standing for the anthem but showing another form of solidarity (such as linking arms, raising fists, turning their backs on the field, etc.).

* Deciding, on a team-by-team basis, whether to remain on the field as one for the anthem or staying in the locker room entirely. As Player C, the unemployed vet who hoped to soon sign with a team, said: “It’s clear [the owners are] trying to divide us.”

* Player B said a teammate of his suggested in a text-message chain with a few fellow teammates that he might take a knee in the locker room and film it on his phone to broadcast on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, but that he first wanted to review the NFL’s social-media guidelines and restrictions and speak to the union before considering doing so. But then Player B's teammate on a later text seemed to indicate he thought doing that might be accepted poorly or open him up to punishment.

* Abiding by the new policy rules but finding other ways to show their disdain for it and/or continuing the players’ message that Kaepernick began almost two years ago.

Again, this has been mostly informal. Some of it might be reactionary response. The policy just had just taken hold hours earlier. Football is two months away, with preseason games not kicking off until early August. Many players remain in offseason mode, even while at their respective teams' facilities. Some were still asking questions about what the policy details were.

"Man, most guys were not even kneeling at the end of last year," said Player A.

It’s clear, however, there has been at least a small groundswell of reaction from the players who are now subject to punishment for what the league can deem improper behavior. But what exactly does that entail?

According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, “Art Rooney of the Steelers said while it was not defined, he believes that raising a fist and linking arms during the playing of the anthem also would constitute disrespect of the anthem.”

Wasn’t it just last year, after all, that a team’s owner was standing on the sideline, arms linked with players, coaches, team officials and the like? This now would appear to fall under the umbrella of what Rooney mentioned as being subject to punishment. Couldn’t players claim they were linking arms as a form of patriotism as a defense?

What a nightmare that might cause.

“I’ll be honest, I probably plan to stand,” Player A said but suggested “that’s how you can get around it maybe. I think some [players] will try it that way, but I am guessing most will stand.”

This is where the league potentially has created a mess with its ambiguity. Enforcing the matter will be a thorny issue if players opt to challenge it in various forms or if there is a discrepancy between different players. The NBA, for instance, has a clear anthem policy — one, though, that predated the Kaepernick drama: all players must stand. Still, even now you don’t see people openly challenging it in that league.

With this new policy, the NFL appeared to have tried to butter both sides of the bread, to appease each side of the anthem debate under the auspice of choice on the matter. And yet the lack of clarity on the policy — even if its ownership-driven intent appears crystal clear — leaves it open to interpretation and more chances for players to challenge the matter. If specific gestures are not clearly written into the rule, players are likely to find ways around it if they want to do so.

“I guess I don’t get how they can [enforce it],” Player B said. “How can they say what is disrespectful and what’s not? Are they trying to trap us into doing something? I don’t get a lot of this.”

Although this has been painted as a two-pronged ideological war — players vs. owners, owners vs. players — there also is a third quotient involved. Fans at games will have their own reactions to how the teams enact the rules and how the players choose to honor them, and some fans clearly have sided with the owners in the belief that players should be required to stand for the anthem.

Asked if he thought players who chose to remain inside the locker room during the anthem, only to rejoin their teammates prior to kickoff, might be subject to fan derision as they came out of the tunnel onto the field, Player A said: “That’s a good question but definitely can see that.”

Added Player B: “I don’t know, but I hope not. I hope they wouldn't single us out like that.”

Player C said he hoped fans would respect individual rights but he can’t get mad if some fans don’t agree with their choice.

“They can do what they want. So can we. You never know what people think. That’s the biggest thing with me, y’all saying you don’t agree with us, well that’s what this is about. It’s a freedom-of-speech thing, and y’all can agree or not agree. That's your choice. That’s the choice everyone [would be] making … I don’t see it any other way,” Player C said. "And that's really how it should be."

What about if all 53 players chose to stay off the field for a game? Would fans' responses be more or less negative if an entire team stays inside the locker room vs. a single player or handful of players executing their rights to do so?

“Man, I don’t know, but that’s what I am saying about them [the owners] trying to divide us,” Player C said. “There’s 30 or whatever of them, 32 of them … and there’s 50 guys or more, 53 [players] on every team. You saw what happened [with the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Chicago Bears in Week 3]. They tried to be unified, that's what they agreed the night before, but one guy [left tackle Alejandro Villanueva] does his own thing and he becomes the story. That’s how that goes.

“Who is gonna be that one guy? [The owners are] counting on a few guys stepping out, doing their thing and [breaking ranks].”

Said Player A, rhetorically: “Better to be on the field doing something else or inside doing what they can’t [see], I mean ... I don’t know.”

Player B had a slightly different take on the matter.

“Some guys will want to do something because now they know [the media] will ask them about it,” he said. “That gives them a platform. That keeps it alive if they want to. If they want to pay the fine or whatever … how much is it even for, do we know yet?”

Player B then just laughed and said, “This whole thing is just so stupid. We [are] not even talking about why the protests happened in the first place. Maybe that’s what they want. …

“I just know [players] are talking right now and trying to figure out what everyone is going to do about it.”

Chances are it won't be just one thing.