(CN) – Civil rights leaders penned a letter urging the National Football League to reconsider its new policy that bars players from taking a knee to protest racial injustice during the national anthem.
“It is disappointing that a league built on grit and competition lacks the constitution to stomach a call for basic equality and fairness,” 28 leaders of civil rights and public advocacy groups wrote in a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday.
The NFL unveiled its new policy on May 23 after President Donald Trump called on fans to boycott games unless the league forced players to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Opponents of the peaceful protests say they are disrespectful to the American flag and U.S. military veterans’ service.
The anthem protests began in 2016 when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the anthem to protest police killings of men of color. The symbolic gesture then spread to other players and teams.
Under the new policy, players who choose not to stand during the anthem must stay behind in the locker room before games. The policy will be enforced with fines imposed on NFL clubs.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the NFL is placing itself “on the wrong side of history” by introducing a policy that restricts free speech and suppresses peaceful protests against racial injustice.
“These players are incredible patriots,” Clarke said in a phone interview. “They are fighting for a better America. These NFL players should be applauded for their boldness and courage in using their unique platform to shine a spotlight on these issues. Their work represents the best of American ideals.”
The civil rights groups say the NFL should be better attuned to racial inequities in society, given the stark disparities within the league itself. While 70 percent of NFL players are black, 75 percent of coaches are white, and 100 percent of team CEOs are white. No team has a majority owner who is black or Hispanic, according to data compiled by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
“The recent decision to mandate the silence of players wishing to demonstrate for civil rights is even more appalling against the backdrop of the glaring racial disparities in the NFL,” the civil rights leaders wrote.
Responding to the new rule, President Trump said in an interview that players who choose not to stand during the anthem “maybe… shouldn’t be in this country.”
The letter by civil rights leaders characterizes those comments as repugnant to American values and a “race-baiting” attempt to alienate people of color.
The civil rights leaders ended their 2-page letter by condemning a policy that “erodes the values that the flag represents and tells the world that the NFL does not care about racial justice.”
“We urge you to reconsider your position,” the civil rights leaders concluded in a direct plea to the NFL commissioner.
When the policy was unveiled last month, the NFL Players Association said in a statement that it was not consulted about the new rules. The union said it was reviewing the policy and considering challenging “any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement” between the NFL and players.
The NFL and NFL Players Association did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Tuesday.
Clarke said the coalition of civil rights groups will continue to demand that individual NFL club owners come out publicly and take a stand on this issue.
“We intend to keep fighting and bringing pressure to bear on the league to repeal this rule,” Clarke said. “We want the players to understand that we stand with them and support them.”
Other signatories on the letter include Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP; and the Reverend Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network.