NFL team owners have almost universally defended players who boycotted the national anthem over the weekend amidst criticism from President Donald Trump. However, nearly all of them stopped short of addressing the issue that inspired the anthem protest in the first place: systemic racism.
Trump on Friday called on NFL owners to fire players who take a knee or otherwise sit out the anthem, a trend that then-San Fransisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick spearheaded last season as a way of addressing racial discrimination and police brutality.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL.com last year. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Trump doubled down on his remarks in a flurry of tweets over the weekend and on Monday morning, and claimed that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race.”
The vast majority of owners issued statements supporting their players, and many them directly rebuked the president.
New York Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch criticized Trump’s remarks as “inappropriate, offensive and divisive.” Jed York, CEO of the 49ers, called them “callous and offensive.” And Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegulo said the president had been “divisive and disrespectful to the entire NFL community.”
Some of the owners referenced “issues” at the heart of the protests ― including police brutality against people of color ― but stopped short of actually naming them. Police killed at least 223 black Americans in the year after Kaepernick’s protest began, according to a recent HuffPost analysis.
York praised the players’ commitment to “social injustice.” Joe Ellis, the chairman and CEO of the Denver Broncos, applauded athletes for “raising awareness for important societal issues.” Detroit Lions owner and chairwoman Martha Firestone Ford defended athletes for wanting to “highlight social injustices of all kind” and spoke out against “negative and disrespectful comments” without mentioning Trump.
“Our organization takes great pride in equality and inclusion and find the comments by the President disappointing and inappropriate relative to our players on this issue,” the owners of the New Orleans Saints said in a statement.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a friend and supporter of Trump’s, rebuked the “tone” of the president’s remarks ― but said nothing of the substance.
Many team owners applauded athletes for wanting to make a difference, but also failed to mention the problems that need fixing, including the job discrimination, voting restrictions and other forms of oppression that black Americans regularly face.
Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy called Trump’s comments “offensive” to players who “peacefully express themselves with the hope of change for good,” and Los Angeles Rams owner and chairman Stan Kroenke said he supported players’ “meaningful efforts ... to bring about positive change in our country.”
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross also called the protesting athletes “men of character” who “wanted to start a conversation” about “equality.” His statement didn’t mention, for example, that black Americans are paid less than their white colleagues at every education level, as a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute found.
“Closing this part of the racial pay gap begins with consistent enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in the hiring, promotion, and pay of women and minority workers, as well as greater transparency around within-firm pay by race, ethnicity, and gender,” EPI said.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell remarked that “divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL,” but stopped short of naming Trump or the issues at hand.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank made a similar remark, saying, “creating division or demonizing viewpoints that are different than our own accomplishes nothing positive.”
Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti issued a statement of support for the players, but also didn’t mention Trump.
“We respect [players’] demonstration and support them 100 percent,” he said.
Chicago Bears Chairman George H. McCaskey said he supported the players and noted that “this divisive political situation has unified our franchise for the present and the future.”
Seattle Seahawks President Peter McLoughlin was the only owner to directly address race.
“We fully support our players’ use of their freedom of speech and peaceful action to highlight the existing racial and other divides in our country,” he said in a statement. “Our players completely respect the military and veterans of our country; however they believe these issues need to come to the forefront.”
Among those issues: Black Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans, according to a 2016 study. They’re also more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder, according to a 2017 review of over three decades of data.
McLoughlin’s statement followed a similar one made on behalf of the players on his team.
“We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country,” the players said.
DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL players union, indicated on Saturday that the movement isn’t going anywhere.
“We will never back down,” he said. “We no longer can afford to stick to sports.”