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Detroit — A civil rights group is threatening public protests during Detroit Lions football games if team owners abide by a new NFL policy requiring all football players to stand during the national anthem.

Members of the National Action Network's Michigan Chapter during a Friday news conference at the entrance of Ford Field downtown called on the team to ignore the NFL mandate on claims it's a violation of free speech.

"We are very, very disappointed in the NFL’s stance on those who choose to kneel for justice," said the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the National Action Network's Michigan Chapter and pastor of the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church. "We’re standing here to send a message to Martha Ford and the Lions organization, demanding they do not adhere to the NFL policy."

The new policy, announced by the NFL on Wednesday, requires all team personnel on the field to "stand and show respect for the flag and national anthem." If a player does not want to participate, they can remain in the locker room. But if they are present on the field for the anthem and decline to stand, their team will be fined by the league and the player subject to discipline from commissioner Roger Goodell.

More: New NFL policy: Players on field must stand during anthem

Anthem protests began with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remaining seated during the anthem in 2016, later evolving into the player taking a knee. Kaepernick has said he was doing so in protest of the oppression of minorities in the United States. 

Over time, Kaepernick's actions spread, with several other players around the league joining in. The issue peaked last fall when president Donald Trump criticized the demonstrating athletes, arguing those who take part should be fired.

Goodell, in a statement released Wednesday, wrote the decision "will keep our focus on the game and the extraordinary athletes who play it — and on our fans who enjoy it."

The move however riled the National Football League Players Association which expressed frustration over the union not being consulted in the development of the policy. 

"Our union will review the new 'policy' and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement," the NFLPA said in a Wednesday statement. 

Williams said he has not yet had any formal contact with the team’s owner about the issue over kneeling. He said, however, the group has drafted a letter outlining its demands and the Lions organization should be receiving it soon.

“We’re calling on the Lions, we’re calling on Martha Ford, we’re calling on the coaches, to disregard ... to turn their heads on bigotry and hate,” Williams said. “There is nothing more American than the opportunity to protest in America.”

The Detroit Lions did not comment and instead referred reporters to the NFL's statement from earlier this week. 

Also Friday, Williams addressed allegations of a 1996 sexual assault against Detroit Lions' coach Matt Patricia.

MoreLions’ Patricia indicted, not tried in ’96 sex assault

MoreNew docs unearthed in Lions' Patricia case

MoreLions' Patricia done talking about 1996 allegations

Williams said he did not know much about the case but thinks "it's a very serious issue."

"But I find it odd (the Lions organization) did not take swift action," he said. "They should be looking very deeply and intently at the issue of Matt Patricia and the allegations against him." 

cramirez@detroitnews.com

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