NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday that team owners will discuss a plan when they meet next week for dealing with the raging national controversy over players’ protests during the national anthem, adding that while the league respects the right of its players to express their opinions, it believes they should stand during the playing of the anthem.
While stopping short of saying the NFL would require its players to stand, Goodell strongly suggested in a letter to NFL teams that at next week’s meeting the league would propose to owners that players be required to do so, while also providing a platform to recognize their community activism.
“Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Goodell wrote to NFL club presidents and chief executives. “It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”
Goodell said the league’s plan would include “an in-season platform to promote the work of players” on social issues, “and that will help to promote positive change in our country.”
Next week’s meeting in New York was previously scheduled, but the ongoing controversy over the national anthem forced the issue to the top of the agenda. “There is no fixed proposal. We will have a discussion around all of these issues,” said one person familiar with the league’s deliberations.
Goodell has had recent discussions with owners and player leaders over the anthem issue. One set of conversations has come with a group of players including Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin, Michael Bennett and Torrey Smith. Those players have asked for official league support of players’ community activism.
“I expect and look forward to a full and open discussion of these issues when we meet next week in New York,” Goodell wrote. “Everyone involved in the game needs to come together on a path forward to continue to be a force for good within our communities, protect the game, and preserve our relationship with fans throughout the country. The NFL is at its best when we ourselves are unified. In that spirit, let’s resolve that next week we will meet this challenge in a unified and positive way.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was asked about Goodell’s letter at her daily briefing and said: “We would support the NFL coming out and asking players to stand, as the president has done … Our position hasn’t changed on that front. We’re glad to see NFL taking positive steps in that direction.”
The NFL Players Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Goodell’s memo.
Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, declined in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning to give a direct answer when asked whether the league believes that a team, under current rules, is within its rights to compel its players to stand for the anthem.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Sunday that any Cowboys player who protests during the anthem and, in Jones’s view, thereby shows disrespect to the American flag will be benched and will not play.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross also has said he expects his team’s players to stand for the anthem. The Dolphins enacted a policy this past weekend by their coach, Adam Gase, in which players must stand for the anthem if on the team’s sideline, but have the option to remain in the locker room or in the tunnel leading to the field for the anthem.
“We’re going to do this together as an ownership group and a league with the players,” Lockhart said Tuesday.
Owners are scheduled to meet next Tuesday and Wednesday in Manhattan. It is their regular fall meeting and was scheduled before the anthem controversy was amplified by recent comments made by President Trump criticizing players for protesting during the national anthem.
“I think everyone at this point is frustrated by this situation,” Lockhart said, and added: “The commissioner and the owners do want the players to stand.”
The owners’ meeting will include “a discussion about the entire issue, including the [anthem] policy,” said Lockhart, who declined to make a prediction about the outcome of those deliberations.
Lockhart said “nothing has changed” regarding the league’s view of enforcing anthem-related guidelines in its game operations manual. That manual, distributed to teams by the league, says that players must be on the sideline for the anthem and should be standing. Failure to be on the sideline could result in discipline being imposed, the manual says. The league has not issued any discipline this season for such violations.
“It doesn’t say the players must stand,” Lockhart said. “It says the players should stand.”
Lockhart said he does not know whether DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA, and other union representatives were told by Goodell and New York Giants co-owner John Mara during a meeting last week that players would not face discipline for protests during the anthem, as Smith said Monday.
“Last week both the commissioner and the chair of the NFL Management Council John Mara were clear when they assured our union leaders, in the presence of other owners, that they would respect the Constitutional rights of our members without retribution,” Smith said in a written statement Monday.
Lockhart said he does not believe that any potential changes to the sport’s anthem policies would have to be collectively bargained with the players’ union.
Those guidelines are spelled out in the game operations manual, not the publicly available NFL rule book.
The NFL’s game operations manual says: “The national anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the national anthem.
“During the national anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition. It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the national anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses.”
The Cowboys are on their bye week and do not play this weekend, so their next game will come after the owners’ meeting. The Dolphins play Sunday at Atlanta.
Three Dolphins players last weekend were not on the field for the anthem. Two Cowboys players raised their fists at the conclusion of the anthem Sunday night, but Jones said Sunday night he had not seen that.
Trump has been unyielding. He said he instructed Vice President Pence to leave Sunday’s Colts-49ers game in Indianapolis if players protested during the national anthem, and later praised Pence’s early exit. Trump suggested Tuesday on Twitter that what he described as “massive tax breaks” received by the NFL should be addressed.
“Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!” Trump wrote.
Lockhart pointed out that the NFL relinquished its tax-exempt status in 2015 and that individual teams were taxed even when the league had that status.
“Even when we had tax exempt status, it did not result in a tax break …. We do not receive any massive tax breaks, none at all,” Lockhart said.
Some owners seem wary of the business implications of the anthem controversy and the public feud with the White House. To this point, there has been no indication of any major sponsors dropping the NFL. The league has disputed a link between the protests and sagging TV ratings. But the NFL has acknowledged that it knows many fans are angry and sponsors are wary of the league engaging in a very heated and public political debate.
David Nakamura contributed to this report.