“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,” New York Giants co-owner John 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 the same.”
The league has been under intense criticism by President Trump and some fans because of protests by players who have refused to stand during the anthem.
“We believe everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Goodell said. “That’s an important part of our policy. It’s also an important part of our game that we all take great pride in. And it’s also important for us to honor our flag and our country, and we think our fans expect us to do that.”
Owners met with players here Tuesday. Goodell and owners said the league is focused on supporting players’ community activism efforts.
“Listen, I know that our position is not the most popular position in the world,” Mara said. “Most of the fans that have written to me, the overwhelming majority of them, believe that we should be ordering the players to stand for the anthem. That’s just not a position that I’m in favor of. And I think almost every other owner in the NFL feels the same way.”
Asked how he responds to such fans, Mara said: “I respond to them by saying that I prefer that our players stand. I’ve asked our players to stand. I think we’re down to one player who has continued to kneel. But at the end of the day, this is America and we do have a thing called the First Amendment. And it’s a right of free speech and a right to protest. That’s 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.”
Goodell said he has had no direct communication with Trump on the issue. He acknowledged that the anger by many fans has made the league’s handling of the matter a key issue to sponsors and those networks that televise NFL games. Goodell cited “six or seven” NFL players continuing to participate in protests during the anthem.
“I understand what our fans feel about this issue,” Goodell said. “And we feel the same way about the importance of our flag, about the importance of patriotism. And I believe our players feel that way.”
He added later: “We know how important this is to our sponsors, our partners, our licensees. It’s important to us, also. We all share that.”
The league’s game operations manual, sent by the league to teams, requires that players be on the sideline for the anthem and says they should stand for it. It leaves open the possibility of league-imposed discipline for a failure to be on the sideline for the anthem. There is no violation and no potential discipline mentioned for a failure to stand for the anthem.
Goodell declined to address Wednesday what the league would do if a team disciplines a player for refusing to stand for the anthem. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones previously has said that his team would bench any player who protests during the anthem and thereby, in Jones’s view, shows disrespect to the American flag.
“I think our clubs all see this the same way: that we want our players to stand,” Goodell said. “We’re going to continue to encourage them to stand. We’re going to continue to work on these issues in the community. … I can’t deal with hypotheticals right now. We’ll deal with those issues as they come up.”
Jones was not available to comment following the meeting.
“That’s up to the Cowboys and, I guess, to the league,” Mara said. “Every team, I guess, has its own policy. But I think, as I said before, the overwhelming majority of teams, just about every one of them, requests that their players stand but do not require it.”
Jones “talked for a long time,” Mara said, during Wednesday’s discussion by the owners on the topic. Mara said “there was conversation” about the prospect of an anthem-related rule change. But no vote was taken, he said.
Owners have expressed to players that they would like for the players to stand for the anthem, according to Mara. But the league’s support of players’ social programs should not be interpreted as a trade-off to get players to stand for the anthem, he said.
“There’s no quid pro quo going on,” Mara said. “There’s no specific expectation. We want the players to stand. We want everybody to stand. But we’re not going to require them to do that.”
Trump was on Twitter Wednesday morning to assail the league’s inaction on the issue, writing: “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!”
Mara said the owners expect more of the same from the White House.
“I don’t have any reaction to that,” Mara said. “We’re all aware that that’s going to continue. We just can’t allow ourselves to get baited by that. We’re going to do what we think is best.”
Said Goodell: “We have about six or seven players that are involved in this protest at this point. This is something that what we’ve [sought] to do is deal with the underlying issue and understand what it is that they’re protesting and try to address that matter.”