METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints released a statement Thursday saying it is “unfortunate and disappointing” that a retired Navy commander who declined an honor at Sunday’s game has been telling media outlets he no longer supports NFL football because of player protests throughout the league before and during the national anthem.
“We will not allow Mr. [John] 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 in their statement, which stressed the organization’s “unwavering 50-plus year commitment to honor, support and recognize our servicemen and women and veterans.”
In the statement, the Saints also emphasized their players have stood for the anthem in every game since the franchise’s inception in 1967, with the exception of “the Week Three game at Carolina when a few of our players did sit.”
Since then, Saints players have chosen to kneel before the anthem in a display of unity, then stand during the anthem. Still, many fans have booed the kneeling players inside the Superdome even though the booing has not taken place during the anthem.
Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Cameron Jordan touched upon this on their Twitter accounts Thursday, with Vaccaro writing, “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.”
Jordan tweeted about how fans have “ignored” the reason behind the player protests.
Wells, who is the executive director of the national Military Veterans Advocacy in Slidell, Louisiana, was selected as a Peoples Health Champion, an award given at Saints home games to recognize “the exceptional achievements of Louisiana residents age 65 and older.”
Since Week 4, Saints players have chosen to kneel before the national anthem in a display of unity and then stand during the anthem.
However, Wells declined the honor, calling the protests during the anthem a “slap in the face to veterans” in a news release and saying he could not “in good conscience” enter an NFL stadium.
“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,” Wells said according to the release. “Since this award is tainted with the dishonorable actions of the NFL and its players, I cannot accept it.”
The Saints released their lengthy statement in response on Thursday afternoon:
“Respectfully and honorably, we chose Mr. Wells for the Peoples Health Champion Award purposefully for this game to bring to light the exact issues that he and his organization represent — the health and well-being of our military, veterans and their families. Unfortunately, he has chosen very publicly not to accept this honor and refused the opportunity to promote the very cause for which he was being honored and distract from awareness we hoped to build throughout our community. We respect his decision, he has that right, and we thank him for his service to our country and his past efforts on behalf of the military and veterans.”
The Saints went on to list the community appearances and financial commitments the team has made to military and related organizations, and to stress that owner Tom Benson — a former Naval officer — has been honored and recognized as a longtime supporter of the military. They said they would use the time at Sunday’s game that had been allotted for Wells’ award to “highlight non-political military advocacy programs and encourage our fans and community to join us in contributing to these groups who directly support our military and veterans.”