President Barack Obama on Wednesday at a town hall addressed controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick and other NFL football players who have chosen to take a knee during the national anthem at games as a form of protest against perceived racial injustice in the criminal justice system.
A military service member, First Lieutenant James Sutter, noted that he believes the national anthem is "a time which ... should be reserved to respect our service members" and asked Obama what his position is on athletes sitting it out.
"I think that it's ... important for us to recognize that sometimes out of these controversies, we start getting into a conversation, and I want everybody to listen to each other," Obama said.
"So I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing. But I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who's lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot."
Obama also defended Kaepernick's right to free speech.
See the athletes participating in Kaepernick's protest:
Pro athletes protesting during the national anthem
Pro athletes protesting during the national anthem
Sep 10, 2017; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett (80) holds his fist in the air during the national anthem prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 10: Michael Bennett #72 of the Seattle Seahawks sits on the bench during the national anthem prior to the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 10, 2017 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Bennett was controversially detained by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department on August 27, after the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor UFC fight. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 26: Offensive tackle Cameron Jefferson #60 of the Buffalo Bills raises his arm and makes a fist during the national anthem before playing against the Baltimore Ravens during a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 26, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 27: Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels dugout the National Anthem before the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on August 27, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 21: A group of Cleveland Browns players kneel in a circle in protest during the national anthem prior to a preseason game against the New York Giants at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 21, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Aug 21, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Members of the Cleveland Browns kneel during the national anthem before a game against the New York Giants at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 17: Malcolm Jenkins #27 of the Philadelphia Eagles holds his fist in the air while Chris Long #56 of the Philadelphia Eagles puts his arm around him during the national anthem prior to the preseason game against the Buffalo Bills at Lincoln Financial Field on August 17, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 02: (L-R) Rashard Robinson #33, Antoine Bethea #41, and Jaquiski Tartt #29 of the San Francisco 49ers raise their fists in protest during the national anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 25: Brandon Marshall #54 of the Denver Broncos takes a knee in protest during the National Anthem before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 25, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.The Broncos defeated the Bengals 29-17. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 22: Duane Brown #76 of the Houston Texans raises his fist during the national anthem before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 22, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 18: Kenny Stills #10 of the Miami Dolphins (C) kneels during the national anthem before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 18, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Philadelphia Eagles players Steven Means (51), Malcolm Jenkins (27) and Ron Brooks (33) raise their fists in the air during the national anthem for a game against the Chicago Bears on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall (54) kneels during the national anthem next to defensive end Jared Crick (93) and defensive tackle Billy Winn (97) and defensive tackle Adam Gotsis (99) before the game against the Carolina Panthers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Kenny Britt #18 and Robert Quinn #94 of the Los Angeles Rams raise their fists in protest prior to playing the San Francisco 49ers in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 06: Miami Dolphins Safety Michael Thomas (31) and Miami Dolphins Wide Receiver Kenny Stills (10) kneel in protest during signing of the National Anthem during the NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins on November 6, 2016, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 06: (L-R) Eli Harold #58, Colin Kaepernick #7, and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to their NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on October 6, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Hayes Pullard #52 of the Jacksonville aJaguars nd Dante Fowler #56 raise their fists in protest during the singing of the national anthem before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at EverBank Field on September 25, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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"Part of what makes this country special is that we respect people's rights to have a different opinion and to make different decisions about how they want to express their concerns," Obama said. "And the test of our fidelity to our Constitution, the freedom of speech, to our Bill of Rights, is not when it's easy, but when it's hard."
The controversy started in August when Kaepernick was seen on the sideline sitting in silence during the national anthem before the San Francisco 49ers' preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. The 49ers quarterback later said he was "not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."