THIEF RIVER FALLS–The absence of the Northland Community and Technical College's football team during the national anthem at the school's homecoming game was not meant to be a sign of disrespect toward veterans, the college's president said Friday, but NCTC does not intend to prevent players from protesting the presentation of colors.

Veterans were upset when the NCTC Pioneers did not appear Oct. 8 on the field for the presentation of the American flag and the playing of the national anthem. Thief River Falls' American Legion-Veterans of Foreign Wars Color Guard was invited to present the colors for the homecoming game against Minnesota State Community and Technical College of Fergus Falls, Minn.

NCTC President Dennis Bona, who was slightly late to the game, said he was surprised to see the Pioneers not on the field during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"My first reaction was that it was a new strategy the coach was using to avoid the controversy of protest during the national anthem," Bona said. "That turned out to be false."

'Bad communication'

Pioneers head coach Jim Cox said he had backed up the pregame warm-up 10 minutes since it was cold that day, adding while dealing with "player issues" he had lost track of time and wasn't able to get his team on the field before the playing of the presentation of colors. Instead of interrupting the national anthem, he had his players wait to take the field out of respect for the flag.

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The move to keep players from running onto the field was meant to avoid disrespecting the national anthem, but it was not perceived that way by veterans at the game, Bona said, adding some contacted the school with their concerns and outrage.

Cox wanted to apologize to those who were upset.

"It was bad communication on my part," Cox said. "I did a poor job, and my apologies to anyone offended."

The phenomenon of protesting the American flag and national anthem began with Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49ers quarterback who sat during the national anthem ahead of the team's NFL preseason games in August. After gaining national attention, he explained he had respect for those who fought to protect the rights and freedoms of Americans but that he would not stand for the flag of a country that oppresses people of color, referring to African-Americans who have been fatally shot in police shootings.

Other players in the NFL joined him in sitting or kneeling during several games, and other players in college and high school leagues have used several forms of silent protest during "The Star-Spangled Banner."

That has carried out on the NCTC football field, with some players "passively protesting" the national anthem during an Oct. 1 home game, Bona said. There also reports of athletes not being lined up for the national anthem but instead milling around and putting equipment on.

Bona did not witness those actions but said, if they did happen, they were disrespectful and that behavior needs to be corrected.

"We need to be lined up there during the ceremony," he said.

Bona said he's spoken with some veterans in person on the matter, saying the discussions ended on a good note after he explained the school's position on the incident. The school will do what it can to prevent disrespectful behavior, he added.

"Our veterans deserve the respect of all (at the game), both players and people in the stands as well," he said, but NCTC will be tolerant of players "passively protesting" the presentation of colors. "They have the right to do that."

The NCTC football team has discussed the protest movement taking place across the country, but there was no teamwide plan for the Pioneers to protest or to prevent players from expressing their views during the homecoming game, Cox said.

"Really, that is their personal choice," he said of his players. "My brother was killed in Vietnam for their right to do so."

Sometimes a team may miss the national anthem by accident, Cox said. NCTC football players and other athletes will not avoid the national anthem by staying in the locker room in an attempt to prevent protests, Bona said.

"As far as curtailing or taking any corrective action for ... what I will refer to as the passive form of protest of the kneeling or the raising of their hands over their head during the national anthem, that's something we are going to protect," he said. "We are not going to encourage it, but we are going to allow that to happen."