The Saints issued a lengthy statement Thursday in response to a Louisiana military veteran's refusal to accept an award at the Superdome in New Orleans. Retired Navy Cmdr. John Wells had said he was "unable, in good conscience, to enter an NFL stadium" while the "discourtesy" of player protests during the national anthem continued.
"We will not allow Mr. Wells' decision and subsequent media appearances to distract our players and organization from continuing to honor and support our military and veterans," the Saints said. "We, as an organization, have decided to move on from this sad and divisive discourse and focus our attention on supporting our military and veterans."
Wells, the executive director of a veterans' advocacy group, had been tabbed to receive a Peoples Health Champion award, which honors (per the company's website) "the exceptional achievements of Louisiana residents age 65 and older." He was to receive the award at the Saints' home game Sunday against the Buccaneers, but he turned down the opportunity, telling the team in a letter, "Although I am touched and honored to be selected for such an award, the ongoing controversy with NFL players' disrespect for the national flag forces me to decline to participate in the presentation."
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"Since this award is tainted with the dishonorable actions of the NFL and its players, I cannot accept it," he continued. "To do so would be hypocritical."
In its response, the Saints noted that their players "have chosen to stand for our National Anthem out of respect for the flag, our servicemen and women and veterans in every game since our inception in 1967 with the exception of one game - the Week Three game at Carolina when a few of our players did sit." That week saw an unprecedented amount of NFL players stage protests, largely in reaction to sharp criticism by President Donald Trump, including his use of the phrase "son of a bitch," at a rally in Alabama.
Since then, New Orleans players have knelt together before the anthem, then stood during pregame renditions of it, to the dismay of some fans. When the Saints took a knee before a game earlier this month, some fans in the Superdome booed them, even as a moment of silence for a slain New Orleans police officer was being observed.
"Our crowd boos us before the anthem, therefore it's not about the flag, it's about the fact we are bringing awareness to a cause that makes people uncomfortable," New Orleans safety Kenny Vaccarro said Thursday on Twitter. He added, "They are booing because we want change. It's pretty sad."
After Vaccarro and teammate Alex Okafor were among the players who sat during the anthem in Week 3, their invitations to serve as grand marshals for a Mardi Gras parade were rescinded. Saying, "I am disappointed in the NFL," Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser announced that he would not attend the team's Week 4 game against the Dolphins in London, although he was in that city at the time.
At league meetings earlier this month, NFL owners could not agree on a change to the league's policy on anthem conduct, which only requires players to be present on the sideline and does not mandate that they stand. "I think most of us believe that attempting to force the players to do something that they don't want to do is not going to be effective in the long run," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did say after those meetings, "We believe everyone should stand for the national anthem." He added that the league would "continue to encourage" players to stand.
"I had hoped and prayed that the NFL would outlaw these disgraceful protests and wanted to give the commissioner and the owners a fair opportunity to do so," Wells said in his letter. "Their failure to act is a slap in the face to all of those who have served in uniform. Men and women have fought and died for the flag that the players are disrespecting."
"If we are to be challenged about our dedication to the military, we then contend we are leaders when it comes to financial support as well as the thousands of service hours our organization and players gladly contribute to the military," the Saints said in their response. The team listed a number of military-oriented organizations that have benefited from its contributions, and it noted that owner Tom Benson "served on the USS South Dakota in World War II" and was "awarded the prestigious Lone Sailor Award, among other recognitions for his support of our military."
"Our respect and support of our servicemen and women and veterans is unquestionable," the Saints said. "During this weekend's game we will again proudly recognize our servicemen and women and veterans and we do so with the full cooperation, appreciation and attendance of our military heroes."