NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday he believes players should stand for the national anthem before games, but that the league will not require them to do so.
“We believe everyone should stand for the national anthem. That’s an important part of our policy,” Goodell said at an afternoon news briefing at the conclusion of the owners’ two-day fall meetings in Manhattan.
But Goodell said owners did not change the league’s policy, which states that players “should” stand for the anthem. Since last year, when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began protesting during the anthem to draw attention to racial injustice in the United States, several other players have taken a knee or raised a fist.
“Again, we believe that our players should stand for the national anthem,” Goodell said. “That’s an important part of our game and our moment, and we believe in that. I think we also have to keep focus on this — we have about six or seven players that are involved with this protest at this point. What we try to do is deal with the underlying issue and understand what it is that they’re protesting and try to address that matter.
“So the important thing for us is to be able to do that and take that opportunity to make real differences in our community, and that is really what’s going to ultimately be the important aspect for us long-term — because this is a long-term issue.”
The owners discussed the anthem issue at length Tuesday and Wednesday. Goodell and 11 owners met for four hours with a delegation of players Tuesday at the league offices. The players, including Malcolm Jenkins of the Eagles, Darius Butler of the Colts, Kelvin Beachum and Demario Davis of the Jets and Mark Herzlich of the Giants, said they were told there would be no change in the anthem policy and that players could kneel without fear of punishment.
Goodell said later Tuesday there would be no change to the anthem policy, prompting President Donald Trump to continue his blistering criticism of the league for not requiring players to stand.
“The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “Total disrespect for our great country!”
Trump addressed the NFL’s anthem debate again Wednesday afternoon. “@NFL: Too much talk, not enough action. Stand for the National Anthem,” he wrote on Twitter.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has threatened to bench players if they don’t stand during the anthem, left the meetings without comment. Jones, usually one of the most outspoken owners, is apparently in the minority when it comes to requiring his players to stand.
“Listen, we all want everybody to stand,’’ Giants president and co-owner John Mara said, “but as far as I’m concerned, I want the players to stand because they want to stand, as opposed to me having to tell them that. There was conversation, but the policy’s not going to change.”
Mara said Jones spoke at length to owners about the anthem debate, but that most owners believe the players have the right to kneel or raise a fist.
“I think most of us believe that attempting to force the players to do something that they don’t want to do is not going to be effective in the long run,” Mara said.
“I think the better policy going forward is to try to have dialogue with them and try to show them that we’re willing to work with them on some of these issues that all of us are concerned about. That’s been my philosophy with my team, and I think almost every other owner feels that way.”
Mara said he understands backlash from the fans and politicians, especially President Trump.
“I know our position isn’t the most popular position,” he said. “With most of the fans that have written to me, the overwhelming majority of them believe that we should be ordering the players to stand. That’s just not a position I’m in favor of, and I think almost every other owner in there views it the same way.
“I prefer that our players to stand,” Mara said. “I’ve asked our players to stand. I think we’re down to one player [Olivier Vernon] that has continued to kneel. But at the end of the day, this is America and we do have something called the First Amendment, and that’s the right of free speech and the right to protest. It is one of the things our forefathers fought and died for, and that continues to be a principle that’s very important to most of us.”
Mara acknowledged the anthem controversy has had a negative effect on the league, including reduced television ratings.
“No question this has had an impact on the business, but it’s an important social issue,” he said. “I think sometimes you have to put the interests of your business behind the interests of issues that are more important than that.”
Asked about Trump’s repeated criticism of the league’s refusal to make players stand and whether the league may never escape his wrath, Mara said: “I think we’re all aware that’s going to continue, but we can’t allow ourselves to get baited by that. We’re going to do what we think is right.”
Goodell said he has not spoken to Trump about his unhappiness with player protests.
“Our players will state to you publicly they are not doing this in any way to be disrespectful to the flag,” Goodell said. He added that the league is “not looking to get into politics, but what we’re looking to do is to continue to give people a focus on football.”
Goodell said that even though only a handful of players still are protesting, the NFL will “try to get that to zero. We need to make real differences in our community. That’s really what’s going to ultimately be the important aspect.”