NFL owners will meet next week to consider changes to a game manual that says players "should" stand during the national anthem, a guideline the league has left to the discretion of players who kneeled in large numbers after criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Commissioner Roger Goodell told club executives Tuesday in a memo obtained by The Associated Press that the anthem issue is dividing the league from its fans. He said the NFL needs "to move past this controversy."
NFL spokesperson Joe Lockhart said the guidance will be "front and centre on the agenda" when owners meet in New York for two days beginning Oct. 18.
NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said players from around the league would be in New York for those previously scheduled owners' meetings.
"The NFL is doing the hard work of trying to move from protest to progress, working to bring people together," McCarthy said in a statement.
The movement started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last season over his view of police mistreatment of black males had mostly subsided when Trump told a rally in Alabama last month that owners should get rid of players who kneel during the anthem.
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In his memo, Goodell reiterated the league's belief that everyone should stand for the anthem and outlined plans to highlight efforts of players trying to bring attention to the social issues behind the game-day protests. Goodell said those plans would be presented to owners next week.
"The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues," Goodell wrote. "We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players."
McCarthy said Goodell met earlier this week with Miami Dolphins players, law enforcement and community leaders.
The game manual says that during the 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." It is the NFL's only known guidance on the subject. The manual also says anyone not on the field by the start of the anthem can be fined or suspended.
San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, the first player to join Kaepernick in protest last season, said he had a conversation recently with 49ers CEO Jed York, who indicated he will continue to support his players if they decide to kneel during the national anthem to protest social injustice.
"He's expressed very clearly that he wants to support us, that he's not going to force us to do anything," Reid said. "Speaking for our team, that's what he's told me explicitly."
More than 20 49ers kneeled during the anthem during the last two games, while teammates stood behind them with hands on their shoulders.
Current rules include potential fines
Lockhart said the league so far has chosen not to discipline any players. He sidestepped a question of whether "should" would be changed to "must" next week.
"I think there will be a discussion about the entire issue including the policy, including all of the various elements that have been raised over the last four weeks," Lockhart said. "I'm not going to predict what might happen."
The guidelines have existed for several years but player behaviours varied until recent years, when the NFL signed a contract with the U.S. government involving military tributes.
The anthem issue flared again Sunday when Vice-President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor, left Indianapolis's home game against San Francisco after about a dozen 49ers players knelt during the anthem.
A few hours later, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys became the first owner to declare publicly that he would bench any players for what he saw as disrespect of the American flag. Jones's comments drew a swift response from union executive director DeMaurice Smith, who said Jones was contradicting assurances from Goodell that players could express themselves without reprisals.
Jones said on his radio show Tuesday that he considered anthem protests a workplace issue, giving him the right to punish his players. He said he was trying to keep the Cowboys out of the debate by declaring that they would all stand.
"I don't want our fans to sit there and have angst over those type of issues," Jones said. "I'm not going to have a situation with the flag that there is a debate over whether we're respecting it or not. I'm clearing that one up."
The Cowboys always stand for the anthem while lined up on the sideline. Two weeks ago before a Monday night game in Arizona, they kneeled arm-in-arm before the anthem — with Jones — then stood during the singing when the flag was displayed. It was three days after Trump's comments in Alabama.
Good morning. My statement. pic.twitter.com/l7KXZrZi2o— @DeSmithNFLPA
Trump tweeted his support of Jones after the owner made the threat to bench players following a loss to Green Bay. They spoke by phone after the game in Arizona.
"We would certainly support the NFL coming out and asking the players to stand, just as the president has done," White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday. "We support the national anthem, the flag and the men and women who fought to defend it."
Goodell wrote to league executives about "unprecedented dialogue with our players," saying those discussions helped build the plan that owners will discuss next week.
"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," Goodell wrote. "The NFL is at its best when we ourselves are unified."
It is about time that Roger Goodell of the NFL is finally demanding that all players STAND for our great National Anthem-RESPECT OUR COUNTRY— @realDonaldTrump