NEW YORK — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says players aren’t trying to be “disrespectful to the flag” when they kneel during the National Anthem. But the league still believes they should stand.
Goodell, speaking to reporters after a two-day owners meeting in New York, announced no plans to change the league’s policy. It says that players should stand for the Anthem, but it does not require them to.
The players “will state to you, and they have stated to everyone publicly, they are not doing this in any way to be disrespectful to the flag,” Goodell said. “But they also understand how it’s being interpreted.”
Last season, then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the Anthem to protest racial injustice, particularly the killing of black Americans by police.
President Trump, who has criticized the protesting players and encouraged owners to fire anyone who takes a knee, went after the NFL again on Wednesday morning.
He tweeted: “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!”
Goodell said the protests were a focus of the owners meeting.
“We believe everyone should stand for the National Anthem,” he said. “That’s an important part of our policy. It’s also an important part of our game that we all take great pride in. It’s also important for us to honor our flag and our country, and we think our fans expect us to do that.”
He said the league would work to bring the number of players protesting to “zero.”
But he also said the issues they are calling attention to are “national issues, American issues,” including criminal justice reform.
“They’re talking about equality issues, making sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to give people an opportunity, whether it’s education or economic,” he said.
Trump has picked fights with the NFL for years. In the 1980s, he owned a team in the USFL, a failed rival league, and pushed an antitrust suit against its much bigger competitor. Four years ago, he attacked rule changes meant to make the game safer.
But his attacks against players protesting during the Anthem have been on a different level. At a campaign rally in September, the president suggested that owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who takes a knee.
Hundreds of players joined the protests. Several owners released statements criticizing the president, and the league promoted the message that it was unified.
Since that attempt at solidarity, the strain hasn’t gone away. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said any player who “disrespects the flag” will not play. Last week, Goodell said the league needs to “move past this controversy.”
“It’s not trying to trade off to get somebody to stand up, you want to make sure that people feel compelled to do what they feel comfortable with,” San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York told reporters.
“Even if you don’t agree with what the sort of messaging is of taking a knee, we need to get the messaging away from the detractors that want to sidetrack the issues of social and racial inequality.”
York said owners are focused on helping players use their platforms to advance their message. He said he was against the protest at first because he “didn’t understand it.” But he said his opinion changed after he met with Kaepernick last season.
“Racial and socioeconomic inequality have existed in this country for way too long,” York said.
“Our players are not trying to be disrespectful to the flag. They’re not disrespectful to our country. They’re trying to bring awareness to issues that come from their communities that most people that look like me don’t understand.”
York said he doesn’t think any players will be reprimanded for taking a knee. He also said all owners, including Jones, have a much different perspective now that they’ve met and listened to players.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said the meetings were “good.” After Trump’s attack, Blank was one of the owners who locked arms with players during the Anthem.
Blank said he thinks players kneeling is “fine.” He said players have “the right to express themselves … in a respectful way.”
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said his players have “great respect” for the Anthem and “all it represents.” He’s also said the the team believes that “in this difficult time of division and conflict, it is more important than ever for football to be a great unifier.”
Also Wednesday, James O’Neill, the New York police commissioner, spoke with owners about “ways players and teams can work with law enforcement and some of the issues they are facing.”