Colin Kaepernick, middle, took to one knee as the national anthem was played before a San Francisco home game in 2016.

Photo: John G. Mabanglo/EPA/Shutterstock

One of the most divisive issues in sports reignited late Friday, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league encourages players to “speak out and peacefully protest” shortly after President Trump revived his criticism of players who have knelt in the past during the national anthem.

The high-stakes exchange came against the backdrop of national protests against police brutality that have engulfed the U.S. since George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis last month. The nationwide protests have hit close to home for the NFL, which for years has been deeply divided after players, led by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, protested racial injustices by kneeling during the national anthem.

Trump campaigned against the NFL in 2017 during what turned out to be the league’s most tumultuous season in memory. Kaepernick hasn’t played since the end of the 2016 season, and he has long accused the league of colluding against him because of his political views.

The issue has blown up again in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, which has brought the issue to the fore again in the NFL. On Friday afternoon, Trump weighed in after one of the league’s most prominent players, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, apologized for earlier comments that took issue with players protesting during the anthem.

Brees had told Yahoo Finance, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” But he quickly reversed course after coming under attack by teammates and others including basketball star LeBron James. In his apology, Brees said his comments were insensitive.

Brees’s apology brought a reaction from Trump.

“I am a big fan of Drew Brees,” Trump tweeted. “I think he’s truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high…”

He added: “We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart,” Trump tweeted. “There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING!”

A short while later, Goodell released a video in which he took a much different stance on the issue of player protest than he has in the past. Goodell didn’t address Trump’s comments but confronted the concerns raised by players in recent days. He said that there would be no NFL without black players and that the league condemns the systematic oppression of 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,” Goodell said. “I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much needed change in this country.”

Goodell’s comments were planned before Trump tweeted, an NFL spokesman said, and came after seeing a video released on Thursday that featured a group of the NFL’s most prominent players calling on the league to more forcefully address racial injustices.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Goodell was encouraging players to kneel during the national anthem, therefore endorsing the action that three years ago deeply divided the league.

Trump’s comments reprised previous criticisms of the league, which came after Kaepernick, then a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, launched the movement to kneel during the anthem to call attention to racial injustices such as police brutality. Trump and others assailed the protests as unpatriotic, while others praised the peaceful demonstration and the players using their platform to call attention to important issues.

In 2017, tension between the president and the country’s most popular sports league escalated after Trump referred in a stump speech to a hypothetical protesting player as a “son of a bitch.” He criticized the players for protesting and the league for allowing the protests to continue.

In response, players across the league—and even some owners—knelt en masse before games in a direct rebuke to the president’s language. Later, Vice President Mike Pencewalked out of a game when players took a knee during the anthem.

But Trump’s rhetoric on the player protests, once frequent, had largely died down. Only a handful of players, including Kaepernick’s former teammate Eric Reid, continued to kneel during the anthem last season. Kaepernick himself has gone unsigned since the 2016 season and has since settled a grievance he filed alleging that the NFL and its 32 teams colluded to keep him unsigned because of his outspoken political views.

The movement has received newfound attention in the wake of the killing of Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Kaepernick’s charitable arm has offered to pay for legal assistance for protesters who have rallied and clashed with police across the country to demand change.

Now this issue that was once a political lightning rod for the NFL has re-emerged. A group of the NFL’s biggest stars including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes released a video Thursday calling for further action from the league.

In a series of tweets Thursday, the NFL highlighted its financial commitments to causes that fight against systemic racism.

“This is a time of self-reflection for all—the NFL is no exception,” the league wrote. “We stand with the black community because Black Lives Matter.”

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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