Roger Goodell had a few words to say about NFL players’ anthem demonstrations during the Bloomberg Year Ahead Conference in New York (Alex Flynn/Bloomberg)

NFL fans come to games “to have fun, to be entertained, not to be protested to.” So says Roger Goodell in an attempt to make sense of how national anthem demonstrations have messed with the nation’s most popular sport.

The commissioner, speaking at Bloomberg’s The Year Ahead Summit in New York, sought to make sense of the latest crisis during his tenure, attempting to place players’ national anthem demonstrations against the backdrop of these divisive times. Goodell, who may work for the owners but has at times regarded himself as the fans’ commissioner as well, admitted that players who kneel, link arms or raise a fist are seeking to raise awareness of social injustice and police brutality.

Like the players themselves, however, he feels that the message they’re sending has been misinterpreted, co-opted into being a dig at the military. Goodell reiterated that he still wants to “see our players stand” for the anthem even as players and owners continue to hold meetings to try to convert their activism into action.

“What we tried to do is listen and learn and understand what our players are actually focusing on. What they’re focusing on is very American. They’re talking about improving their communities. . . . They’re focusing on social justice, criminal justice reform, how we bring hope to people and give them opportunities to live a better life,” he said.

“And I’m proud of our players for that and proud of our owners for listening, supporting them and trying to give them a platform from which to make improvements in our society, which we’re all about, . . . and get beyond what we call protests to progress, to get to the point where we can actually make that kind of positive change. Because people come to our stadiums to have fun, to be entertained, not to be protested to.”

Unlike the NBA, the NFL does not require players to stand for the anthem and Goodell has sought to find middle ground between players and his bosses, owners such as Jerry Jones who threaten to bench players who do not stand. But the NFL has felt an impact on its once-impervious product this fall. Whether it’s because of the demonstrations, the vocal criticism of President Trump or the mundane explanation that many of the league’s biggest stars are injured, the game and its TV ratings have suffered.

“Our players say over and over again ‘this isn’t about disrespect for the flag or our military or our veterans’ and I believe them,” he said, “but they also have to understand that it is interpreted much differently on a national basis.”

Internally, NFL owners may be just as divided, except for Jones, who has made no secret of his anger over Goodell’s attempt to suspend Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games. Jones has threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the owners’ plan to complete Goodell’s contract extension, bringing the divisions right into the commissioner’s own wallet. And sponsors are uneasy, too. Last week, John Schnatter, the CEO of Papa John’s pizza, ripped the NFL for “poor leadership” on the issue, saying, “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago,” when Kaepernick began taking a knee. Papa John’s is an NFL sponsor and, perhaps not coincidentally, Jones happens to own 120 of Schnatter’s franchises.

“You hear it from fans. You hear it from sponsors and licensees and partners,” Goodell said of the volume at which the conversation over demonstrations is being conducted. “That’s something that we keep in great communication about. But we also try to think long-term. I think we live in the short-term world where we’re reacting to everything and trying to not keep our focus on what our long-term values are, what our long-term goals are and stay with that and get that done in a way that we can all look in the mirror and all be proud of that.

“Our players are important to us . . . their perspective is important to us. It’s important to our fans. What we have to do is find solutions to those things over the long term while respecting our values and respecting viewpoints that we may not necessarily agree with. That is a broader issue in our society.”

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