NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Football League rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls to punish players who kneel for the national anthem to protest racism but said on Wednesday players “should” stand and it hopes the demonstrations will stop.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made clear he will take a more patient approach than the one urged by the president: Rather than using discipline, the league will continue to nurture players’ efforts to fight racial disparities in the criminal justice system, believing this would make the urge to protest fade.
“We have about six or seven players that are involved in this protest at this point,” Goodell told reporters after a two-day meeting with team owners and the players’ labor union in New York City, saying he hoped that number would eventually be zero. “What we’re trying to do is deal with the underlying issue and understand what it is they’re protesting.”
The commissioner cited bail reform and ending mandatory sentences as justice topics of concern for players.
In contrast to Trump, who has scorned any player who protests as a “son of a bitch” who should face suspension, Goodell praised the athletes as political activists trying to improve their communities.
Trump responded to Goodell’s approach with impatience.
“Too much talk, not enough action,” he wrote, referring to the league, in a Twitter post on Wednesday afternoon. “Stand for the National Anthem.” It was the most recent in a series of semi-regular rebukes since he first expressed his disdain for the protests at a rally in September.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump expressed his anger at the previous day’s news that the NFL rulebook, which says players “should” stand for the anthem but stops short of mandating it, was not being changed any time soon.
While the president and the league appeared to have reached a stalemate, some fans have said they are heeding Trump’s calls to boycott games while the kneeling continues, which Trump has said is unpatriotic and an insult to the country’s military veterans.
Players kneeling during the national anthem are protesting at the killing of unarmed black men and boys by police across the United States, as well as racial disparities in the criminal justice system. More than half of all NFL players are black.
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.
More players have begun kneeling since Trump criticized the practice, and some sympathetic teammates have linked arms with the kneelers while standing themselves.
Some of the league’s 32 team owners, including Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, have said they will bench players who do not stand for the anthem.
Goodell said on Wednesday that the question of what individual teams might do had not come up during the meeting. Instead, he said, the team owners generally agreed it was important to listen to players’ concerns.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman