For a moment there, it looked as if the National Football League would make it through the Super Bowl without another take-a-knee uproar, and then NFL officials rejected an ad from a leading veterans group with the phrase #PleaseStand.

The league once again finds itself playing defense after American Veterans, known as AMVETS, decried the league for “corporate censorship” over its refusal to accept the organization’s one-page paid print ad for the Super Bowl LII program.

As Marion Polk, AMVETS national commander, said in a letter Monday to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, “Freedom of speech works both ways.”

“We respect the rights of those who choose to protest, as these rights are precisely what our members fought — and in many cases died — for,” Mr. Polk said in the letter. “But imposing corporate censorship to deny that same right to those veterans who have secured it for us all is reprehensible and totally beyond the pale.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy acknowledged that the league had invited AMVETS to purchase ad space, but he explained that the program has long steered clear of including anything that would be viewed as a “political statement.”

“The Super Bowl game program is designed for fans to commemorate and celebrate the game, players, teams and the Super Bowl,” Mr. McCarthy said in an email. “It’s never been a place for advertising that could be considered by some as a political statement. The NFL has long supported the military and veterans and will again salute our service members in the Super Bowl with memorable on-field moments that will be televised as part of the game.”

He said the Veterans of Foreign Wars submitted an ad with the tagline “We Stand for Veterans,” which was approved.

The NFL had asked AMVETS to replace #PleaseStand with “Please Stand With Our Veterans,” but such a change would have watered down the message, said AMVETS spokesman John Hoellwarth.

“Now you’re saying, ‘Please just generally support our veterans,'” said Mr. Hoellwarth. “That’s not our message. We mean, ‘Please, literally, stand.’ And I’m sure the NFL wants people to believe that that would have been a reasonable accommodation, but that’s not our message.”

The outcry over the take-a-knee protests surged in late September after President Trump suggested firing players who refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but the number of players still participating by the end of the season had dwindled to fewer than 20.

Players say they are refusing to stand to show their unhappiness with police brutality and other social issues and are not targeting the flag or the military with their protest. President Trump has fanned the controversy with speeches and tweets sharply critical of the protests.

Refocusing attention

None of the half-dozen teams with active kneelers qualified for this season’s playoffs, increasing the likelihood that the NFL would avoid a resurgence of the national anthem flap in the weeks before Super Bowl LII — until now.

Instead, the decision to reject the veterans’ ad wound up refocusing attention on the protests Tuesday and fueled calls for a Super Bowl boycott.

“By boycotting #SuperBowl2018 we hit the #NFL where it hurts most — let those posturing jerks pay a price for snubbing the National Anthem,” conservative author Dinesh D’Souza said on Twitter.

Others, including Fox Sports commentators Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock, backed the NFL’s position, although it was unclear whether they understood that the ad would run in a printed program seen only by fans in the stands and not on television.

“I think the NFL’s saying, ‘Listen, we just got through this. We don’t want to remind anybody in a Super Bowl ad,'” Mr. Cowherd said on “Speak for Yourself.” “Let’s not kick-start this fire again. It’s in the rearview mirror. Let’s not remind people of it.”

Super Bowl LII, featuring a showdown between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, will be played Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“I think it’s the absolute right decision,” said Mr. Whitlock. “I get why people are like, ‘Hey, they should allow [the ad],’ but they worked very hard to move beyond this issue. They’re spending a lot of money trying to satisfy the players. Super Bowl Sunday is not the time for that controversy. It’s time to celebrate the game of football.”

AMVETS pointed out that the same ad rejected by the NFL has been approved to run in the NBA and NHL program guides for their all-star games.

“The NFL said it does not want to take a position on that,” Joe Chenelly, national director for AMVETS, said in a statement. “Really, by not letting us run an ad, we think they are taking a position.”

The Super Bowl LII program has already gone into production, apparently making it too late for the ad to be included.

The NFL has refused to change its rules to require players to stand for the anthem, despite fan outrage over the protests that has been blamed in part for the 9.7 percent decline in the league’s television ratings in 2017.

Conservatives pointed out that the NFL has run political ads in the recent past. Last year’s Super Bowl featured commercials on “the usual feminist myths about the pay gap” and “two immigration lectures,” as The Daily Wire put it.

The take-a-knee protests were popularized by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who also wore police-as-pigs socks at camp in 2016 and a Fidel Castro T-shirt during a media call.

“While the NFL for two years now has allowed players to sit, kneel, raise a fist or perform other symbolic acts during the performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ the league says the Super Bowl is not a time for political messages,” said The Daily Wire.

Rather than avoid controversy, Mr. Polk predicted, the NFL’s decision to reject the ad will have the opposite effect.

“[I]t will not be taken lightly by the hundreds of thousands of voices AMVETS represents,” he said.

AMVETS, a nonpartisan advocacy group, bills itself as “the nation’s largest and oldest congressionally chartered service organization” for veterans.

The ad can be seen online at:

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