TAMPA — In August, before President Donald Trump got actively involved in NFL players protesting during the national anthem, Bucs players said they had a great appreciation for their ownership and coaches giving them the freedom to express themselves as they wanted on an important issue.
"Going around the NFL, there's many different ways to handle it, but they gave us the option," running back Jacquizz Rodgers said. "As long as you go about it the right way, just be educated and be ready for the questions afterwards, you're good to go."
But owners could soon lose the right to give their players that choice. On Tuesday, news broke that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had sent a memo to all 32 team owners, letting them know a proposal would be made at next week's league meetings requiring all players to stand during the anthem.
"Like many of our fans," Goodell wrote in the memo, "we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.
"We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players."
Bucs receiver Mike Evans, who sat in protest during the anthem in one game last year, chose last month to kneel with fellow receiver DeSean Jackson, each with their hands on their hearts during the anthem before a game in Minnesota. Both have stood respectfully with their teammates for the past two games, and Evans said he understands why Goodell is proposing the change.
"We're human beings at the end of the day. We have a voice. We want to speak about certain social issues, but it's clearly looking like they don't want us to do that, and the NBA as well," Evans said. "It's our job. … (Goodell) feels he needs to do what he needs to do. It'll probably save money, I guess."
The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, declined to comment through a team spokesman. And the Bucs' past two home games were both sold out, with Thursday's loss to the Patriots drawing the team's largest home crowd in five years. Players interviewed Tuesday said they valued the freedom the Glazers gave them, understanding that not all teams did the same with their players.
"Having owners' backing is huge," guard Kevin Pamphile said. "Having their support, giving us the freedom to speak our minds.
"At the same time, we are where we are, and the military in this community is huge. We respect every veteran. They fought for us. They're allowing us to do what we do on the field."
Pamphile said players that chose to protest during the anthem meant no disrespect to the flag or the United States, but they understand why some were still offended.
"It's a very touchy subject. You don't want to offend people who don't understand," he said. "I respect what the league is trying to do. They're obviously trying to mend things between us and the fans, the fans that are upset with us. … Guys have messages. They want to have freedom of speech. We're not trying to bash the flag or anything."
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Trump has been outspoken in his criticism of the players who are protesting, igniting the issue last month when he called for protesting players to be fired, even using a profanity to describe them.
On Tuesday morning, Trump went after the league again.
"Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time, disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?" he wrote on Twitter. "Change tax law!"
The NFL gave up its tax-exempt status in 2015, and the profits made by individual teams are subject to tax. Still, Goodell responded hours after what Trump wrote, and change could be coming next week across all 32 teams.
Bucs players expressed disappointed at the prospect of their team not being able to extend to them a freedom that they value greatly.
"Me, personally, I feel like everybody should exercise their rights: If they want to kneel, let them kneel; if they want to stand, let them stand," Rodgers said. "As a whole for this team, I know whatever our guys choose to do, they're going to have everybody's support. We've talked about that."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.