NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took to video to say the league made mistakes in not listening to players, while denouncing racism in the United States amid widespread protests over police brutality against black people.
“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” said Goodell.
“We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”
The NFL has been locked in an ongoing debate with players over kneeling protests during the national anthem before the start of games, a practice popularised by quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
Some were quick to accuse the NFL of hypocrisy, pointing to the fact that Goodell’s statement failed to address Kaepernick’s subsequent exile from the sport.
Eric Reid, the second NFL player after Kaepernick to participate in US national anthem protests, took the NFL to task and criticised the league for failing to denounce the police officer involved in George Floyd’s death.
Reid also accused the NFL of failing to apologise for failing to embrace Kaepernick’s movement when he was playing in the league in 2016.
Kaepernick filed a grievance against the league in 2017, claiming collusion, as no teams signed him after he parted ways with the San Francisco 49ers.
The NFL and Kaepernick settled in 2019.
“Protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff,” said Goodell.
“I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve.”
The NFL sent the video out just hours after US President Donald Trump renewed his call for an end to kneeling protests during the national anthem.
“We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart,” Mr Trump tweeted.
“There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING!”
The statement was a response to quarterback Drew Brees, who apologised this week for equating the kneeling protest with disrespecting the American flag.
On Thursday, several players, including reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, appeared in a video on social media calling for the league to “admit wrong in silencing” players and to support protests.
“How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players?” Chiefs player Tyrann Mathieu said in the video.
The league also faced criticism earlier this year when just one of five head-coaching vacancies went to a non-white candidate in the most recent hiring cycle, and last month the NFL introduced rules designed to boost racial diversity among coaching staff.