for free expression but potentially further alienating fans who object to the protests and feel they are disrespectful to the flag and the military.
But, after a meeting Tuesday with union representatives and players, the league did promise to help support some of the causes targeted by the protesting players, including reform of the criminal justice system.
The decision was faulted by President Trump on Wednesday morning. Trump, who has on several occasions criticized players who do not stand for the anthem, said on Twitter: “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!”
The owners’ decision to not toughen the league’s stance on anthem demonstrations showed yet again the contortions they have been going through to display support for their players while wrestling with the political fallout of the sideline protests that have persisted since last season.
The players, largely on social media, had made clear they would not abide penalties for sitting or kneeling during the pregame anthem, while legal experts wondered if any punitive change would hold up in court. The gestures began last season, spurred by Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, to draw attention to racial oppression and police brutality against black Americans.
The Miami Dolphins’ owner, Stephen Ross, speaking in New York at a business meeting of the 32 owners, said that the league had made no changes to its policy and that players would be free to protest again this weekend.
“I can’t really tell you what people are going to do,” Ross said when asked if players would continue to protest. “The league has a policy. It hasn’t changed.”
The league’s rule book never required players to stand for the anthem but says they must be on the sideline during the song and “should” stand for it.
The ambiguity in the rule has made it difficult for the league to fine players who have either sat or knelt for the anthem, and the owners had discussed clarifying the wording to make standing for the anthem mandatory.
By leaving the rule alone, the league has chosen to avoid more internal strife with its players and to potentially weather more criticism from fans and President Trump, who has repeatedly ridiculed the league for not firing players who demonstrate during the anthem.
“We need to be above petty attacks from anybody, because racial and socioeconomic inequality has existed in this country for too long,” Jed York, the chief executive and co-owner of the San Francisco 49ers, said when asked about the president’s criticism of the league. “You got to block out the noise and go do your job, and that’s what we need to focus on.”
The meeting on Tuesday included the N.F.L.’s commissioner, Roger Goodell; the director of the players’ union, DeMaurice F. Smith; and 11 owners, including Robert K. Kraft of the New England Patriots and Arthur M. Blank of the Atlanta Falcons. They met for almost four hours with a dozen players, including Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles, Eric Reid of the 49ers and Kenny Stills of the Dolphins, all of whom have protested during the anthem.
“We just talked about how the owners could come alongside us and we could, collectively, collaboratively, work together to actually create some change, real changes,” Jenkins said afterward, flanked by other players. “We feel a real responsibility to our country, to our communities, so we’re working through ways to really have long lasting, real change.”
Jenkins said there had been no discussion during the meeting about prohibiting players from kneeling during the national anthem; whether players continue to do so, he said, would be an individual decision.
He also said that Kaepernick had been invited to the meeting but chose not to attend. Kaepernick’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, later said it was possible that Kaepernick would attend future meetings.
The league’s broadcasters and sponsors have tried to tiptoe past the public spat as pockets of fans have said they would no longer go to games or buy N.F.L. merchandise. Some teams, too, have had to handle a large number of calls from angry fans. Last week, the Jaguars took the unusual step of apologizing to military leaders in the Jacksonville area for demonstrating during the national anthem before their game in London last month.
According to a copy of the letter obtained by The Associated Press, the Jaguars’ president, Mark Lamping, said that the team was “remiss in not fully comprehending the effect of the national anthem demonstration on foreign soil has had on the men and women who have or continue to serve our country.”
To find a way to extinguish the crisis, Goodell has tried to persuade the players’ union to help him to persuade the players to stand for the anthem.
On Monday, Goodell and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin sent a letter of support to the congressional sponsors of the Sentencing Reform and Correction Act, a bill designed to increase rehabilitation of people convicted of crimes.
Protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement gathered outside the hotel where the owners were meeting. One demonstrator, Hank Newsome, said Kaepernick was being unfairly treated by the N.F.L. because he brought attention to uncomfortable issues, including racism.
“What I see with the N.F.L. owners is a bunch of good old boys telling the players: Stay in your place,” he said.
Not long after, two protesters confronted the Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as he walked through the lobby of the hotel, saying that the players were kneeling during the anthem to end white supremacy. Jones listened to the protesters but did not speak to them.
Goodell said late Tuesday that the owners had not asked the players for a pledge to stop protesting during the anthem. He said the league and players would most likely meet again in the next two weeks.
Goodell’s efforts to forge a consensus among the owners come as they are considering whether to extend his current contract by another five years.
Goodell has tried to mollify the players by visiting Philadelphia, Miami and other cities to speak to them and witness their work in the community.
But with the president continuing to harangue the N.F.L. on Twitter, and fans increasingly upset about the league’s handling of the issue, including in Jacksonville, where a fan paid to have a plane fly over the Jaguars’ stadium carrying a message calling for a boycott of the team and the N.F.L., the owners continue to fret over the protests and how they will affect the league’s brand when television ratings have started to slip.
The league also continues to grapple with Kaepernick, who filed a grievance accusing the owners of colluding to keep him from joining a team. Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013, has remained unsigned since leaving the team in March.