NEW YORK (Reuters) - National Football League officials weighed the fervor of players protesting racism against U.S. President Donald Trump’s anger at their autumn meeting on Tuesday with supporters of the players kneeling outside in solidarity.
The NFL did not seek commitments from its players to stop kneeling during pregame renditions of the U.S. national anthem but rather focused on helping them in their political activism.
“We spent today talking about the issues that our players have been trying to bring attention to. About issues in our communities to make our communities better,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters.
Trump’s repeated denunciation of the players as unpatriotic for kneeling during the national anthem, which he reiterated as recently as Monday, has only made the practice more widespread.
His calls for fans to boycott games if players persist is an unwelcome prospect even for the world’s highest-grossing sports league and have forced the topic high up the agenda of this week’s regularly scheduled meeting in New York City.
Outside the Manhattan luxury hotel where team owners, players and their union’s leaders met, about two dozen people showed their backing for the protesting athletes, kneeling on the sidewalk while holding placards that read “Take a knee against police brutality.”
The demonstrators later dispersed.
The small but growing number of players who have taken to kneeling during the national anthem are protesting the killing by police of unarmed black men and boys across the United States, as well as racial disparities in the criminal justice system. More than half of all NFL players are black.
Goodell appeared less interested in stifling the silent protests, despite Trump’s wishes, and instead praised players’ character, saying he wanted to help their political activism.
“Today’s discussion with our players was very productive and very important. It reflected our commitment to work together with our players on issues of social justice,” said Goodell.
“Our players are men of great character. They have a very deep understanding and tremendous knowledge of the issues that are going on in all of our communities, and their commitment to addressing these issues is really admirable.”
Goodell, who cut his news conference off after one question, said the league will meet again with players, probably in the next two weeks, and will spend more time talking to reporters when the two-day meeting concludes on Wednesday.
An NFL spokesman had said the president might not see an outright ban on the national anthem protests soon, if ever, and predicted that the meeting would focus on ways for all sides to work together.
Along those lines, team owners and 13 players had a “productive meeting” of their own earlier on Tuesday at the league offices about how to collaborate on positive social change and addressing inequality, according to a statement by the NFL and the players’ union, the NFL Players Association.
“As we said last week, everyone who is part of our NFL community has a tremendous respect for our country, our flag, our anthem and our military,” the statement said. “In the best American tradition, we are coming together to find common ground and commit to the hard work required for positive change.”
Malcolm Jenkins, a player for the Philadelphia Eagles, told reporters that the two sides discussed how to amplify players’ voices and make what he called “long, sustainable changes.”
“We all have mutual interests. ... We want to make sure that the quality of product that we put out on the field is great, but at the same time we have a responsibility to the communities that we live in and the communities that we come from,” Jenkins said.
Trump wants the league to suspend players if they kneel during the pregame renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” saying on Monday the players were disrespecting the country. His vice president, Mike Pence, walked out of a stadium in Indianapolis earlier this month as players knelt, which Trump said he had instructed Pence to do.
Some team owners, including Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, sympathize with the president. Jones has said he would punish players who kneel by keeping them off the field.
Jones and Buffalo Bills owner Kim Pegula were among the officials seen heading into Tuesday’s meeting, all of them ignoring shouted questions from reporters. Many officials arrived through a rear entrance to avoid cameras.
Players and their union have bristled at Trump’s assertion they are unpatriotic. Though still a minority, more players have begun kneeling since the new football season began, and some sympathetic teammates have linked arms with the kneelers while standing themselves.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who first popularized the gesture last year, said he settled on kneeling as a form of protest because it is widely seen as a gesture of respect.
Kaepernick, who is a free agent, was not invited to attend the meeting.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto and Brendan McDermid in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis