ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly has tempered his criticism of NFL players protesting during the national anthem after being accused by Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes for attempting to divide the team.
"I want to be clear that I agree with the reason some NFL players have chosen to peacefully protest, and appreciate players, coaches and organizations being unified," Kelly said in a statement sent by text to The Associated Press late Monday Night.
"I would hope that while we all, myself included, may not agree with using the national anthem as the appropriate forum for such display, we should continue to strive to work through these issues with great respect for each other," he added, before closing with "God Bless."
Kelly said he issued the statement to clarify remarks he made on his weekly show on Buffalo’s WGRF-Radio earlier in the day.
In saying he disagreed with any player not standing during the anthem, Kelly singled out LeSean McCoy after the Bills’ star running back sat on the turf and stretched while the "Star Spangled Banner" was performed before Buffalo’s home game against Denver.
"I like LeSean McCoy, don’t get me wrong, but that totally 100 per cent I disagree with what he did," Kelly said. "You want to kneel? Fine. But when you do what he did yesterday, that sort of bummed me out and I lost a lot of respect for that man."
The comments upset Hughes in part because Kelly stood with the team while the anthem was being played.
"I was very disappointed in him," Hughes said. "It was not cool, very unacceptable. And if he has things to stay about us as a team, come talk to us."
Hughes added Kelly should have approached the team with his concerns and shouldn’t have been standing alongside the Bills on the field during the anthem if he had issues with the protest.
Kelly told The AP he exchanged texts with McCoy, and has also had a constructive conversation with Hughes.
McCoy took his place at the far end of a line of Bills players and coaches, who stood about 10 yards on the field as the anthem began.
Kelly was at the opposite end of the line, and stood for the anthem with his right hand over his heart while holding up a Bills cap in his left hand.
In his clarification, Kelly wrote: "Yesterday we saw how passionate players are in regards to the peaceful protests that occurred in many NFL stadiums, including New Era Field where I was in attendance."
That was a switch from what Kelly had said on his radio show, in suggesting NFL players are disrespecting the nation if they continue their protests.
"We need to stand for our country and what it stands for black and white," he said.
"If you don’t think our country is good enough then leave, go somewhere else."
Kelly also posted a note on his Instagram account saying the only time he will ever kneel is to pray.
McCoy was not available for comment and isn’t scheduled to speak to reporters until Wednesday when the Bills (2-1) return to practice to prepare for their game at Atlanta this weekend.
About 10 other Bills players knelt during the anthem, while the rest of the players and coaches stood with arms linked or put their hands on the backs of players who were kneeling.
The decision to have Bills players protest in their own way was reached Saturday during a voluntary team meeting which also included general manager Brandon Beane, coach Sean McDermott and owners Terry and Kim Pegula.
Hughes was unhappy with Kelly’s criticism, because he didn’t attend that meeting.
"That doesn’t sit well with me because we came together as a team and we discussed how we were going to approach the national anthem," Hughes said.
"We’re trying to bring the team together. We’re trying to bring a community together. We’re trying to bring a nation together. And by dividing us and dividing the team, that doesn’t work."
Kelly is employed by the Bills and is normally present on the team’s sideline during home games.
Hughes didn’t directly answer a question as to whether Kelly would be welcomed back on the sideline.
"If he wants to offer anything of encouragement to our team, to our quarterbacks, to our offence, please provide all that," Hughes said.
"We could use all the encouragement that we need to figure out how they won games back in those days and be as successful as they were."
Kelly retired following the 1996 season after being a key member of Bills teams that reached and lost four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991-94.
Coach McDermott referred to a statement the Pegulas released on Saturday when asked about Kelly criticizing McCoy.
"I stand by that statement of equality, love and unity," he said.
And McDermott could not foresee the Bills not allowing Kelly to be on the sideline.
"Listen, Jim Kelly, he’s one of the hallmarks of this organization," McDermott said. "So I at this point don’t see that changing."