Commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday that the National Football League is having "unprecedented conversations" after owners and players met amid ongoing protests during the national anthem.
"We just had two days of conversation with our owners. Our clubs all see this the same way. We all want our players to stand," Goodell said at a news conference, adding that he understood why some people were upset that some players weren't standing for the anthem.
But he said the league wouldn't force players to stand during the national anthem — instead, he said, the league and the owners continue to listen to the athletes and discuss the issues they are concerned about.
"We have about a half a dozen players protesting, and we're going to continue to work to try and get that to zero," he said.
Players are concerned about criminal justice reform and inequality — particularly educational and economic — Goodell said after the meetings, describing the players as "incredibly knowledgeable and articulate."
The controversy began during the 2016 season, when Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt during the national anthem — a move he said he intended as a protest against racial inequality in the United States.
Kaepernick filed a grievance this week alleging that NFL owners had colluded to keep him out of the league, but his protest became particularly noteworthy this season when teams of players and coaches joined in kneeling or linking arms during "The Star-Spangled Banner" before games. Some teams also didn't leave their locker room when the anthem was played.
Many said they weren't protesting racial intolerance but President Donald Trump.
Trump fired the shot that compelled the mass protest during a political rally in late September, telling a crowd: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired.'"
The president revisited the topic multiple times on Twitter, most recently on Wednesday morning.
The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
Then he followed up with a fresh tweet after Goodell's news conference.
.@NFL: Too much talk, not enough action. Stand for the National Anthem.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
Although the president has told his Twitter followers that there should be a nationwide boycott of the NFL, Goodell continued to say the dispute was apolitical.
"What we're trying to do is stay out of politics," he said, telling reporters later that he hadn't spoken to Trump and didn't plan to speak to him. "What we're trying to do is keep people focused on football."