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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Answering NFL National Anthem Questions

Q: Does the NFL have rules for player conduct during the national anthem? Does the Department of Defense fund patriotic ceremonies at NFL games?

A: Prior to May 2018, the league didn’t require players to stand during the anthem. The Defense Department no longer funds various patriotic displays.


Does the NFL have rules for players and coaches during the national anthem? 

Is it true the Department of Defense pays millions of dollars to the NFL for them to have on field ceremonies for the national anthem?


(Note: We updated the short answer, but the rest of this item is no longer current. It was accurate at the time it was written in 2017, when player conduct during the national anthem became a political issue. On May 23, 2018, Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, announced that the NFL would require all players and personnel to stand if they are on the field while the national anthem is played. Players may stay in the locker room or away from the field if they prefer not to stand, according to the new rule, and teams will be fined if any of their players or employees don’t conform.)

Our inbox — editor@factcheck.org — has been flooded with questions about the National Football League’s rules and procedures since President Donald Trump called on team owners to fire players who make political demonstrations during the national anthem at football games.

A few days after Trump’s remarks, there were a spate of silent demonstrations by league players and team officials prior to games on Sept. 24 and 25. The Associated Press reported that “about 200 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in defiance” as the anthem played in stadiums around the country.

Here we answer two of the questions we have been asked most often.

NFL Rules for National Anthem

Nowhere in the NFL’s official 2017 rule book does it say that players and coaches are required to stand for the national anthem. In fact, the rule book says nothing about the anthem.

However, the league’s “Game Operations Manual” has regulations for every detail of professional football games, including the playing of the national anthem.

The song is to begin exactly five minutes before the start of the game, and is to last no longer than two minutes. The manual encourages players to stand for the anthem, but they are not required to do so, Brian McCarthy, vice president for corporate communications at the NFL, told FactCheck.org.

McCarthy echoed a statement the league issued in 2016 after then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem at a preseason game. Kaepernick said he was protesting oppression and police treatment of African Americans and other minorities.

At that time, the NFL said: “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.”

The rules for other professional sports leagues aren’t exactly clear, either.

Like the NFL, the National Hockey League doesn’t address the anthem in its official rule book, and neither does Major League Baseball.

The MLB released a statement on Sept. 23 saying: “Major League Baseball has a longstanding tradition of honoring our nation prior to the start of our games. We also respect that each of our players is an individual with his own background, perspectives and opinions. We believe that our game will continue to bring our fans, their communities and our players together.”

However, the National Basketball Association’s 2015-2016 rule book states that: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said on Sept. 28 that he hopes players will stand during the anthem when it is played before games in the upcoming season.

The Defense Department and the NFL

The Department of Defense spent $6.1 million on various recruitment efforts and patriotic events at NFL games between 2012 and 2015, according to a 2015 joint oversight report from the offices of Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Republicans from Arizona.

Shortly after that report was made public, the NFL undertook an audit of more than 100 contracts between its various teams and the Department of Defense, according to a letter NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent to Flake and McCain. That audit found $723,734 of defense funding that “may have been mistakenly applied to appreciation activities rather than recruitment efforts,” according to the letter. Goodell pledged to return that money.

“DoD has a long history of providing community relations participation at sports venues because of the prime opportunity to connect with their large fan bases,” Army Maj. Dave Eastburn, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, said in a statement to FactCheck.org. He confirmed that the department currently has no contracts for patriotic displays at football games.


Trump, Donald. Remarks at Sen. Luther Strange campaign rally in Alabama. C-span.org. 22 Sep 2017.

Associated Press. “Donald Trump’s national anthem comments spark mass of protests by American football players.” Irishexaminer.com. 25 Sep 2017.

NFL rule book. nflcommunications.com. Accessed 27 Sep 2017.

NFL game-day preparation. operations.nfl.com. Accessed 27 Sep 2017.

Fucillo, David. “NFL issues statement on Colin Kaepernick not standing during National Anthem.” Ninersnation.com. 27 Aug 2016.

Wyche, Steve. “Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem.” NFL.com. 27 Aug 2016.

NHL rule book. NHL.com. Accessed 29 Sep 2017.

MLB rule book. MLB.com. Accessed 29 Sep 2017.

Lee, Jane. “A’s Maxwell kneels during anthem.” m.mlb.com. 24 Sep 2017.

NBA rule book. NBA.com. Accessed 29 Sep 2017.

Begley, Ian. “Adam Silver says players know respecting the flag is important.” espn.com. 29 Sep 2017.

McCain, John and Flake, Jeff. Joint oversight report. 4 Nov 2015.

Goodell, Roger. Letter to senators. nflcommunications.com. 18 May 2016.