(RNN) – The NFL commissioner sent a letter to teams Tuesday, telling them, “we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem.”
ESPN’s Adam Schefter shared the letter Tuesday in a Facebook post. Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that sports can bring together a divided country, “especially the NFL,” at least for a few hours.
“The current dispute over the national anthem is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country,” he wrote.
Goodell said the league office felt the same as many people about players standing for the American flag and performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, adding that he wants to honor the flag and the 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,” Goodell wrote. “The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues.”
President Donald Trump has been a critic of the protests in recent weeks, saying Tuesday on Twitter that tax laws should be changed to affect the NFL, and his press secretary clarified later that he meant subsidies given to build stadiums. The league had a tax-exempt status until 2015, but it has since been dropped.
Vice President Mike Pence also left the 49ers-Colts game Sunday before kickoff, in response to members of the San Francisco team that took a knee. The move had been planned in advance if players didn’t stand, Trump tweeted, and Pence has been criticized for using government assets to make a special trip to Indianapolis to leave a game before it started.
Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2017
The NFL commissioner said the league had developed a plan it would be sharing at its meeting next week in New York.
“This would include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help to promote positive change in our country,” Goodell wrote. “We want to ensure that any work at the league level is consistent with the work that each club is doing in its own community, and that we dedicate a platform that can enable these initiatives to succeed.
“Additionally, we will continue the unprecedented dialogue with our players.”
Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, began to sit for the anthem during the 2016 preseason. He said he could not show pride in a flag while black people and people of color were oppressed, also referencing “blood on the streets” from recent police killings of unarmed people.
Kaepernick later began to kneel rather than sit as a show of respect to members of the armed forces, after speaking with a U.S. Army veteran. Teammate Eric Reid joined Kaepernick in kneeling prior to the game, and other players across the league also kneeled, raised fists or made other public showings.
Kaepernick became a free agent after the season and has not been signed to another team.
The protests got a resurgence in popularity this season, when Trump mentioned it at a campaign rally in Alabama in September. Trump criticized the NFL and its owners for allowing players to sit or kneel during the national anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump said during the rally. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
The next day was a Sunday with a full slate of NFL games, and many players kneeled, sat or linked arms during the national anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans teams remained in the locker room during the anthem.
The vast majority of team owners released statements in reaction to Trump’s comments, many of them critical of the president’s words.
Players didn’t appear on the field for the anthem in primetime games until 2009, instead remaining in the locker room. The change occurred when NFL teams started to receive money from the Department of Defense and the National Guard to honor the military and display patriotism.
The DoD gave millions to various sports leagues, including the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and the MLS. Arizona Sen. John McCain criticized the move after he discovered the payments as part of an audit on Defense’s spending on military tributes, and some of the money was repaid in 2016.
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