Like the Democratic Party, the NFL has forgot who put them there. The NFL is in the entertainment business, and the heart of its fan base is Trump country. It ain’t CNN.
First, the First Amendment protects against the government limiting speech (like public universities do routinely these days); it is not a license to use your employer to harangue their customers. On the company’s time and the customer’s dime, you have no First Amendment right to lecture your customers or fellow employees or anyone else for that matter.
Second, the NFL rules allow broad discretion to owners to fire any player for a wide range of offensive expression, even outside the field of play. The NFL recognizes and repeats this in court filings all the time. It is on this basis the NFL restricts everything from what players can wear on the field (like threatening to fine players for commemorating 9/11) to the players’ domestic interpersonal relationships. The NFL has punished a range of expression, from the charitable (players fined for wearing breast cancer research support clothing items) to the benign (dance expressions in the end zone).
Third, each contract a player signs includes templated language that reflects these rules. A player must “conduct himself on and off the field with appropriate recognition of the fact that the success of professional football depends largely on public respect for and approval of those associated with the game” (Paragraph 2). Additionally, any player whose personal conduct is “reasonably judged by the club to adversely affect or reflect on the club” can have his contract terminated immediately. (Paragraph 11). The players’ own CBA (collective bargaining agreement) reinforced this league prerogative, authorizing owners right of suspension or termination “for conduct detrimental” to “public confidence in” football. (Article 46).
Fourth, the league specifically articulates restrictions on how players must handle the national anthem. The game-operations manual — not the rules manual — dictates how NFL games should be run, including how players must handle the anthem. The NFL’s own website threatens “penalties for noncompliance” with the game operations manual.” The manual requires that “all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem.” It further requires the players “stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking” during the playing of the anthem. The manual recognized the league will “be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country” and it is thusly the duties of the owner to have this “pointed our to players and coaches.” The sanctions for non-compliance include “fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choices.”
Trump is right: the league’s own rules require respect for the anthem and flag under which many Americans returned in caskets. The fact the NFL chose to ignore its own rules, its own contracts, and its own collective bargaining agreement is a sign it doesn’t consider disrespect for the flag to be “conduct detrimental” to the “public reputation” of the league. That’s what happens when you get your news from CNN.