Will NFL players kneel during national anthem again?

Will NFL players kneel in protest again?

We may not know the answer for several months, until the league starts the 2020 season. However, the debate, often fiery, is heating up again. Will there even be fans in the stadiums or the anthem played, amid the COVID-19 pandemic? They are points which might make the arguments moot.

With a late-night tweet Sunday, President Donald Trump reignited his debate with the NFL over players kneeling during the national anthem.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week admitted that the league had erred in how it has dealt with players' feelings toward police brutality, social inequalities and systemic racism over the past few years.

“We, the National Football League, admit that we were wrong for not listening to NFL Players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter. I personally protest with you and wanted to be part of the much-needed change in this country.”

The president now questions whether Goodell’s message could renew the quiet protests that have been amplified by the current social unrest.

“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 OK for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?” Trump wrote.

Players, such as Washington's Adrian Peterson, predict that "without a doubt" there will be kneeling during the anthem this season.

Falcons president Rich McKay said he believes the league got distracted by the flag issue in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the national anthem as a statement against police abuses.

“This is a moment in time, and we can’t get distracted by people using side issues,” McKay said Saturday before the president’s latest tweet. “I think that’s what happened in my mind, at least from my perspective, in the Kaepernick situation.”

The NFL has not commented on the president's latest tweet. When it released its 2020 games schedule in May, the league said it intended to play the season amid the coronavirus pandemic. Whether it will continue its long-standing practice of playing the anthem — possibly to a stadium without fans — is uncertain. Here's a look back at the league's history with the pregame ritual:

How it began 

The “Star-Spangled Banner” is a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key inspired largely by the U.S. flag flying during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812.

It wasn't adopted as the nation's anthem until 1931.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” was first played at a sporting event in 1918, during the seventh-inning stretch of the World Series. Baseball began the ritual of playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” before games during World War II, as a display of unity and patriotism.

Other leagues adopted the pregame fanfare.

The NFL’s practice 

More than any other league, the NFL has flexed its patriotic muscle by adopting the anthem and symbols of military might, down to the language used to describe the game — played in the “trenches,” featuring “blitzes” and “bombs.”

At the height of the Vietnam War — in 1968 — players were directed to face the flag and stand at attention during the anthem. The exercise would die down after broadcast partners requested players remain off the field during pregame festivities. That decision would be reversed by the league for the 2009 season.

At least one player, St. Louis Cardinals linebacker David Meggyesy, broke with the league on its 1968 stance and bowed his head with his helmet to his knee during the playing of the anthem.

The protest  

During a preseason game in 2016, San Francisco quarterback Kaepernick quietly began his protest of police abuses by sitting on the bench during the national anthem. That season, 14 players joined Kaepernick sitting, kneeling or raising a fist during the anthem.

Kapernick has been without a contract since 2016. In 2019, Kaepernick and former teammate Eric Reid, who also knelt in protest, settled a collusion grievance cases against the NFL.

The president’s protest

In September 2017, President Trump further politicized the issue when speaking to a group of his supporters during a rally, “wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag to say, ‘get that (expletive) off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”

Within a few days, the president had sent two dozen tweets on the subject and declared that the act of kneeling “has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”

The president's words began a national debate that drew critics and supporters. The Georgia Senate condemned the action.

The practice, however, continued as the league attempted to show solidarity with both sides of the issue by staging kneel downs before the anthem.

By May 2018, the NFL responded — during an owners' meeting in Atlanta — by announcing a policy requiring players to "stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem." It would allow teams to penalize players who demonstrated during the national anthem.

This policy remains in place.

What happened now  

In June 2020, following days of nationwide unrest protesting the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees readdressed the issue of kneeling during the anthem during an interview, declaring, "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States."

After drawing backlash from his own teammates and NFL players, Brees apologized.

President Trump disagreed with Brees’ apology.

Brees sent a message directly to the president explaining he was wrong in his original stance.

“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,” Brees wrote on Instagram.

What’s next?

Support for Kaepernick's initial actions have regained steam, starting with Goodell's admission, "We were wrong."

The league plans to move forward and be more involved in the issues that Kaepernick was trying to bring to light.

“The bigger thing is just really apologizing for the moment and not getting caught up in the action of the discussion of the flag as opposed to the actions that he was trying to bring attention to,” McKay said.

Several NFL owners contributed to Trump’s campaign. Dallas owner Jerry Jones and former Houston owner the late Bob McNair made disparaging remarks about the players.

“I just think that the league has an opportunity with our brand, to lean in and be a part of the discussion of a lot of issues that are now on the table,” McKay said. “I think that’s an important thing. How that turns out politically, I don’t know.

“I hope, at least, that this moment in time doesn’t get caught up in the politics of it and that it actually gets caught in listening and responding to all of the issues that are out there that involve racial inequality, involve social injustices, all of the topics, police brutality, whatever the topics be, hopefully as a league we’ll be able to play a part in those discussion and trying to move toward some actual tangible solutions.”

— Staff writer D. Orlando Ledbetter contributed to this article.