NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A retired Navy commander declined to accept a Peoples Health Champion Award that was to have been presented during this Sunday's New Orleans Saints game in the Superdome.
"Although I am touched and honored to be selected for such an award, the ongoing controversy with NFL players' disrespect for the national flag forces me to decline to participate in the presentation," Cdr. John Wells wrote to executives at Peoples Health and the New Orleans Saints organization. "I am unable, in good conscience, to enter an NFL stadium while this discourtesy prevails."
Peoples Health Champions are citizens over 65 who have significant accomplishments after reaching "senior citizen" status. Wells is the longtime executive director of Military Veterans Advocacy, a national organization based in Slidell, Louisiana, that works in the interests of veterans and active duty military personnel.
"Since this award is tainted with the dishonorable actions of the NFL and its players, I cannot accept it," Wells continued. "To do so would be hypocritical. I had hoped and prayed that the NFL would outlaw these disgraceful protests and wanted to give the Commissioner and the owners a fair opportunity to do so. Their failure to act is a slap in the face to all of those who have served in uniform. Men and women have fought and died for the flag that the players are disrespecting."
The Saints released a lengthy statement defending their support of the military and veterans.
"Respectfully and honorably, we chose Mr. Wells for the Peoples Health Champion Award purposefully for this game to bring to light the exact issues that he and his organization represent- the health and well-being of our military, veterans and their families. Unfortunately, he has chosen very publicly not to accept this honor and refused the opportunity to promote the very cause for which he was being honored and distract from awareness we hoped to build throughout our community. We respect his decision, he has that right, and we thank him for his service to our country and his past efforts on behalf of the military and veterans.
Throughout Mr. Wells' media appearances today, he has stated he no longer supports NFL football. That is unfortunate and disappointing considering the New Orleans Saints' unwavering 50-plus year commitment to honor, support and recognize our servicemen and women and veterans. We will not allow Mr. Wells' decision and subsequent media appearances to distract our players and organization from continuing to honor and support our military and veterans. We, as an organization, have decided to move on from this sad and divisive discourse and focus our attention on supporting our military and veterans. In lieu of honoring Mr. Wells, we will use the time allotted for the Peoples Health Champion Award to highlight non-political military advocacy programs and encourage our fans and community to join us in contributing to these groups who directly support our military and veterans.
Our players have chosen to stand for our National Anthem out of respect for the flag, our servicemen and women and veterans in every game since our inception in 1967 with the exception of one game - the Week Three game at Carolina when a few of our players did sit. We could not be more proud of the work our players do in the community and with our military, arguably a model program in the league. Our players have been clear and steadfast in their support for our military and veterans - not just with their words but with their actions - including visits with the military at home and abroad. Just two days ago, Saints players visited the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse in partnership with USAA's Salute to Service Week. Their support for wounded veterans and their families and other meaningful engagement are normally conducted out of the public eye.
If we are to be challenged about our dedication to the military, we then contend we are leaders when it comes to financial support as well as the thousands of service hours our organization and players gladly contribute to the military, including the Wounded Warrior Project, the American Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes, the World War II Museum, Louisiana Heroes Project, Operation Homefront, the Louisiana National Guard, the US Marines (Saints/Marines Bike and Toy Giveaway), the National Flight Academy and Bastion. We take enormous pride in our support of the military, the flag and our National Anthem. Mr. Benson, who served on the USS South Dakota in World War II, has personally donated to, and has been recognized by the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Navy where he was awarded the prestigious Lone Sailor Award, among other recognitions for his support of our military.
Our respect and support of our servicemen and women and veterans is unquestionable. During this weekend's game - we will again proudly recognize our servicemen and women and veterans and we do so with the full cooperation, appreciation and attendance of our military heroes."