N.F.L. commissioner encouraged players’ peaceful protests, taking their side after President Trump denounced kneeling during the national anthem.


 

The protracted debate in the N.F.L. over players protesting racial injustice during the national anthem reignited with force on Friday as President Trump rekindled his war with the league over the issue and the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, issued his strongest support yet for the players seeking to fight racism and police brutality.

In an swift response to a video montage featuring star players asking the league to address systemic racism, Goodell said he apologized for not listening to the concerns of African-American players earlier and said he supports the players’ right to protest peacefully. During the 2016 season, Colin Kaepernick started the movement within the league when he knelt to call attention to racial injustice and violence by police, but no team has offered him a contract since then.

Goodell’s comments were diametrically opposed to those of the president, who defended New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who said this week that it was disrespectful to kneel during the pregame playing of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

 

After immediate rebuke from fellow N.F.L. players, including some of his teammates, Brees apologized on Thursday. But the president said on Twitter that Brees should not have bowed to pressure and everyone should stand when the national anthem is

“We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart,” the president wrote. “There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag — NO KNEELING!”

Trump first attacked the N.F.L. over protests during the national anthem in September 2017. During a campaign rally, he called on owners to fire any players who knelt during the anthem, and used a vulgarity to describe quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the movement when he knelt through the previous season to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality.

Kaepernick adopted the kneeling gesture on the advice of a former Green Beret he had met, who suggested it would be a respectful way to call attention to his cause.

A spokesman for the N.F.L. declined to comment on the president’s comments about Brees and the national anthem.

The president’s admonishment comes as the N.F.L., like the rest of the country, grapples with how to respond to the killings of black Americans at the hands of police, and to the protests that have engulfed the nation for nearly two weeks since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he’s truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high…

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

…We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart. There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING!

More than any other major sports league, the N.F.L. has wrestled in recent years with the issue of race, the lack of African Americans and other people of color in positions of power in the league and the rights of players to protest social issues on the field. While three-quarters of the league’s players are African-American, nearly every owner is white and several of the most prominent owners are strong supporters of the president.

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