Pete Buttigieg: 'I Put My Life On The Line To Defend' NFL Players' Right To Kneel For National Anthem

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said he supports the NFL players who choose to kneel for the National Anthem as a way to protest police brutality.

Buttigieg made the comments during an interview with Washington Post journalist Robert Costa, who asked the Navy veteran about his reaction to seeing the football players take a knee over the past three seasons.

"I felt that I was watching Americans exercise a right that I had put my life on the line to defend," Buttigieg said. "The point of defending free speech is not that you expect to be perfectly aligned with every speech act that is protected."

"That's a fundamental American freedom," Buttigieg continued. "It's a huge part of what makes America, America. And when that same flag was on my shoulder, I didn't think of the flag as something that itself as an image was sacred. I thought of it as something that was sacred because of what it represented. One of the very things it represented is the freedom of speech, and that's one of the reasons I served."

.@PeteButtigieg says when he saw NFL players protest police brutality by kneeling during the National Anthem, he saw Americans using a right that he fought to defend. #buttigiegpostlive

— Washington Post Live (@postlive) May 23, 2019

Former San Fransico 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the protests during the 2016 football season by sitting during the National Anthem as a way to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder," Kaepernick told NFL Media at the time.

Kaepernick later switched his protest to taking a knee prompted in part by a letter the quarterback received from Green Beret Nate Boyer, who also briefly suited up as a long snapper for the Seattle Seahawks. Boyer and Kaepernick later talked about the protest and Boyer suggested kneeling instead of sitting.

"I expressed to him, maybe there's a different way of demonstrating, where you're showing more respect for those who laid down their lives for what that flag and anthem stand for. suggested kneeling, because people kneel to pray; we'll kneel in front of a fallen brother's grave," Boyer told CBS Sports.

Kaepernick's move was quickly repeated by players all over the NFL, generating international headlines and prompting journalists to keep a running count of how many players chose to kneel each weekend during the season. Even President Donald Trump commented on the issue, regularly tweeting about it and bringing it up during political rallies.

"Wouldn't you love to see one of those NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say: 'Get that son of a b---h off the field right now. Out! He's fired. He's fired!,'" Trump told a crowd during a September 2017 rally in Huntsville, Alabama.

And in October 2017, the president tweeted, "The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!"

While individuals on both sides of the aisle both supported and decried the protest, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers after the 2017 season. Later that year, the team's general manager, John Lynch, said that the quarterback would have been cut from the team had he not chosen to leave.

Kaepernick became a free agent, but was not picked up by another team.

The comments from Buttigieg, who currently serves as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, are not the first time he has supported NFL players and other athletes who choose to kneel for The Star-Spangled Banner.

"I was trained to stand and salute. But freedom - including to protest injustice - is the whole point of the anthem, the flag and the country," Buttigieg tweeted in September 2017.

Pete Buttigieg
Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg answers questions at a Washington Post Live discussion May 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Buttigieg’s appearance was the first of the Washington Post’s “2020 Candidates” series of discussions. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images