If the NFL thought the debate on peaceful protests was over, it was mistaken.
Last week, amid widespread protests over police brutality against black people, the league issued an apology for not listening to its players’ concerns over racism in the United States. In the statement, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league would now “encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest”.
That statement was seen as a snub to Donald Trump, who has called players who kneel during the national anthem “sons of bitches”. On Sunday night, Trump hit back on Twitter.
“Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?” wrote the president.
Former San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick began kneeling for the national anthem in 2016 as a protest against police brutality and racism in the United States. Other players soon joined him. At the time, the league said it did not condone the protests and Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since he left the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the 2016 season.
The NFL had issued its statement on Friday supporting peaceful protests after a demand from several of the league’s highest-profile black players, including the Super Bowl MVP, Patrick Mahomes.
Shortly afterwards Goodell released the NFL’s statement. “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” Goodell said. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe that black lives matter.”
Significantly, the NFL did not mention kneeling during the anthem or Kaepernick in the statement. Large parts of the NFL’s fanbase is conservative and both the league and Trump know that many of them see kneeling during the anthem as disrespect of the military and the flag.
This is not the first time in the last week that Trump, who trails Joe Biden in polls for November’s presidential election, has called out a prominent NFL figure on the subject of the protests. On Friday, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees apologized for comments he made implying that players who kneel during the national anthem are unpatriotic.
Trump took aim at Brees later, saying on Twitter: “I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he’s truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high… We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart. There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING!”
Brees then addressed the president directly in an Instagram post, saying he stood by his apology. “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities,” he wrote.
“Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.”
The new NFL season is due to start in September. Kaepernick and Eric Reid, the teammate who first knelt alongside him, are both without teams.