NFL game day dawned Sunday with a powerful display of unity by the Baltimore Ravens’ and Jacksonville Jaguars’ players and coaches, who locked arms on the sideline of London’s Wembley Stadium — some kneeling, others standing — during the singing of the United States national anthem.
Their statement without words, echoed in similar demonstrations nationwide prior to 1 p.m. games, came in response to a three-day campaign by President Trump, who at 6:44 a.m. Sunday renewed his demand that NFL owners “fire or suspend” players who kneel during the national anthem in protest and called on fans to boycott games if the practice continued.
“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” Trump tweeted roughly three hours before kickoff of the NFL’s first game of the day, staged in London as part of an ongoing effort to extend the league’s fan base abroad.
Roughly 30 minutes later, at 7:13 a.m., Trump continued in a second tweet: “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
Trump started his crusade against protesting NFL players during a campaign-style rally in Alabama on Friday night. In his remarks, he made a thinly veiled allusion to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to take a knee during August 2016 preseason games in protest of police violence against minorities initiated the practice and debate. Trump called on NFL coaches to get the “son of a b—” players off the field if they continued to kneel.
The tenor and substance of those remarks, which Trump reiterated via social media over the weekend, triggered reactions from many players, coaches and executives of the NFL’s 32 teams. While far from universally in favor of the form of protest Kaepernick chose, many issued statements defending the rights of players — and all Americans — to express themselves on matters they are passionate about.
In closed-door meetings Saturday night, many NFL players and coaches discussed whether and how to respond as the national anthem played before Sunday’s kickoffs.
During pregame warm-ups before Miami faced the Jets, Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi sported an #I’mWithKap” T-shirt.
The Pittsburgh Steelers chose to remain in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem before their 1 p.m. kickoff in Chicago, while Coach Mike Tomlin took the field with several assistants and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, stood just outside the locker room tunnel.
Prior to kickoff of the Eagles’ game against the New York Giants, as a football-sized American flag was stretched out before them, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie joined his players, staff and several police officers standing to shoulder to shoulder on Philadelphia’s sideline. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, standing near Lurie, raised his fist. Some Giants kneeled, such as Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins and Damon Harrison, while others stood — each extending an arm to the man beside him.
During pregame ceremonies at Foxborough Stadium, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady locked arms with teammates, putting a hand over his heart, as the anthem played. Some Patriots took a knee, while others stood. Some fans were heard booing the gestures while others chanted, “Stand up.” Similar dissent was heard in Buffalo, where segments of the stadium voiced their displeasure by booing as members of the Denver Broncos took knees.
Redskins players held no such discussions Saturday, according to a person in the organization, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of the topic. He characterized the Redskins’ locker room as lacking in outspoken voices on social issues.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, among eight NFL owners who are significant Trump donors, had no comment “at this time,” a team spokesman said Saturday night and repeated Sunday.
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the offensive line of the Oakland Raiders, who’ll face the Redskins at FedEx Field in the nationally televised Sunday night game, intends to sit or kneel during the anthem. And Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN Sunday that in light of Trump’s comments, he felt he could no longer ask his players not to protests while in uniform. “The only thing I can ask them to do is do it with class. Do it with pride. Not only do we have to tell people there is something wrong, we have to come up with answers. That’s the challenge in front of us as Americans and human beings.”
What makes Sunday’s mass demonstrations by NFL players particularly notable is that the league demands conformity far more than other pro sports leagues, devoting lengthy sections of its rulebook to the height of players’ socks, for example, the maximum size of towels they may attached to their game-day pants and the permissible forms of “spontaneous celebration” after scoring a touchdown or making a drive-ending sack. Barring quarterbacks, players are most prized for executing assignments precisely as directed. And because NFL careers are short and contracts aren’t guaranteed, unlike those of NBA or Major League Baseball players, outspoken players who create distractions often do so at their peril.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, spoke Saturday about President Trump’s comments but didn’t coordinate a response, according to one person close to the situation. Sunday’s on-field displays, rather, reflected individual teams’ decisions rather than an orchestrated league-wide effort.
The Ravens-Jaguars response reflected that: players and coaches choosing whether to stand or kneel yet linking arms in solidarity. Jacksonville owner Shad Khan joined his squad on the Wembley sideline and explained afterward that he considered it a privilege to show unity and support for diversity of race, faith and opinion in the face of the president’s “divisive and contentious” comments.
By Sunday morning, nearly half the NFL’s 32 owners had issued a statement. Among the more notable was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a staunch and vocal Trump supporter, as well as a $1 million donor to his inaugural, who wrote that he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday.”
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports and, unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,’ Kraft wrote in his statement. “I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal. Our players are intelligent, thoughtful and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”
On ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended Trump’s comments about NFL players demonstrating during the national anthem.
“This is about respect for the military, the first responders,” he said. Mnuchin also declined to criticize the coarse language Trump used, saying, “I think the president can use whatever language he wants to use.”
Of the players, Mnuchin said: “They have the right to have their First Amendment off the field. This is a job.”
Another White House official, Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short, said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” that Trump is standing with the “vast majority” of Americans who believe the flag “should be respected.”
He added that Trump plans to take more action on improving race relations.
“The president believes it is his role to improve race relations,” Short said.
Seattle’s Pete Carroll was the first NFL head coach to issue a statement about the matter, posting on Facebook and Twitter that “there’s no longer a place to sit silently. It’s time to take a stand.”
Carroll’s statement followed those of Seattle owner Paul Allen and cornerback Richard Sherman.
Wrote Carroll:“We stand for love and justice and civility. We stand for our players and their constitutional rights, just as we stand for equality for all people. We stand against divisiveness and hate and dehumanization. We are in the midst of a tremendously challenging time, a time longing for healing. Change needs to happen; we will stand for change. May we all have the courage to take a stand for our beliefs while not diminishing the rights of others, as this is the beating heart of our democracy. As a team, we are united in a mission to bring people together to help create positive change. We can longer remain silent.”
Mark Maske and Cindy Boren contributed to this report.
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