NEW YORK – The National Football League rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls to punish players who kneel for the national anthem to protest racism, but said on Wednesday players “should” stand and it hopes the demonstrations will stop.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made clear he will take a more patient path and support players’ efforts to reform criminal justice after a two-day meeting with team owners and the players’ labor union.
“We have about six or seven players that are involved in this protest at this point,” Goodell told reporters after the meeting ended at a New York City hotel, saying he hoped that number would eventually be zero. “What we’re trying to do is deal with the underlying issue and understand what it is they’re protesting.”
The commissioner cited bail reform and ending mandatory sentences as topics of concern for players, and he said the NFL, the world’s highest-grossing sports league, would help support players’ advocacy in those areas.
In contrast to Trump, who has scorned any player who protests as a “son of a bitch,” Goodell praised the athletes as political activists trying to improve their communities.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump expressed his anger at the previous day’s news that the NFL rulebook, which says players “should” stand for the anthem but stops short of mandating it, was not being changed anytime soon.
“Total disrespect for our great country!” Trump wrote in a Twitter post, the most recent in a series of semi-regular rebukes since he first expressed his disdain for the protests at a rally in September.
Some fans have said they are heeding his calls to boycott games while the kneeling continues, which Trump has said is unpatriotic and an insult to the country’s military veterans.
Players kneeling during the national anthem are protesting the killing of unarmed black men and boys by police across the United States, as well as racial disparities in the criminal justice system. More than half of all NFL players are black.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who first popularized the gesture last year, said he settled on kneeling as a form of protest because it is widely seen as a gesture of respect.
More players have begun kneeling since Trump criticized the practice, and some sympathetic teammates have linked arms with the kneelers while standing themselves.
Some of the league’s 32 team owners, including Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, have said they will bench players who do not stand for the anthem.
Goodell said on Wednesday that the question of what individual teams might do had not come up during the meeting. Instead, he said, the team owners generally agreed it was important to listen to players’ concerns.