When protests erupted across the NFL over the national anthem in recent years, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross walked a fine line between backing his players and respecting the military.
The billionaire real estate magnate, who has faced significant backlash for holding a fundraiser for President Donald Trump, resigned this week from the NFL’s social justice committee. Trump has repeatedly criticized NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence and inequality.
“I supported the players initially,” Ross told Yahoo Finance in an interview conducted in June, before the controversy over the Trump fundraiser.
“When Trump made it about the military, that was a different story,” he said. The president “took that message and changed it” by linking it to the military, he said, in an apparent reference to Trump’s suggestion that NFL players who kneeled during the anthem were unpatriotic.
When backlash to on-field kneeling during the national anthem ramped up last year, Ross sparked a controversy when he said that any player who kneeled would be suspended for four games.
He later softened his remarks, saying that it was merely a “placeholder” policy. But he suggested to Yahoo Finance Editor in Chief Andy Serwer that there was a difference between peaceful protest and respecting the armed forces.
“And with that, whenever you’re really protesting against the military, I think nobody in this country really wants [to protest that],” Ross added. Still, Ross said he tells his players, “I got your back. Do what you feel is right.”
Ross made his comments in a conversation that aired on Yahoo Finance in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.
Last year, NFL owners agreed to a policy that would fine players for protesting the national anthem, which some cast as a victory for Trump.
Although there’s still division over player protests, the league saw a ratings bump during the last season, a reversal from 2017 when the controversy coincided with a drop in viewership. Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, helped ignite the NFL protests in 2016, when he dropped to his knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
Calder McHugh is an Associate Editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @Calder_McHugh.