Roger Goodell Says NFL Protest Debate Is "Threatening to Erode" Game

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

"We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players," the commissioner wrote in a letter to owners.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday said the fiery debate over protests during the national anthem is "threatening to erode" the game, according to a letter he sent to all 32 teams, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter.

A war of words started weeks ago when President Donald Trump made an offhand remark while stumping for a GOP candidate in the South, saying players who sit out the anthem are a "son of a bitch." Since then, the polarizing national debate has reignited.

"We live in a country that can feel very divided. Sports, and especially the NFL, brings people together and lets them set aside those divisions, at least for a few hours," Goodell wrote in the Tuesday letter. "The current dispute over the national anthem is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country." 

Last season, current free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first to sit out the national anthem in protest of the treatment of African-Americans in America, especially at the hands of police officers. Since then, numerous other players have protested in similar fashion.

Since his initial remarks, President Trump has hammered away on the topic, tweeting numerous times that he believes any player who sits out the anthem should be fired by the team owner and that the league needs to make standing a rule.

Both the NFL and players union pushed back against those remarks, defending players' rights to peacefully protest. However, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently announced he would bench any player who sat out the anthem. 

Goodell's letter was sent hours after Trump threatened to do away with tax breaks to the league if it allows players to sit out the anthem. 

The commissioner said he was "very proud of our players and owners who have done the hard work over the past year to listen, understand and attempt to address the underlying issues within their communities."

Goodell made it clear the league believes all players and coaching staff should stand for the anthem, but he still feels it is important to also respect players' feelings on "critical social issues."

"The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues," Goodell wrote. "We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players."

The league has a "plan" which it will reveal to teams at a league meeting next week. 

"This would include such elements as an in-season platform to promote the work of our players on these core issues, and that will help to promote positive change in our country," Goodell wrote. "We want to ensure that any work at the League level is consistent with the work that each club is doing in its own community, and that we dedicate a platform that can enable these initiatives to succeed."