On Nation's Biggest Stage, NFL Players Support Equality — And Protest a President

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Members of the New England Patriots kneel during the national anthem
Members of the New England Patriots kneel during the national anthem Credit: Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Two days after President Donald Trump blindsided the NFL with a suggestion that players who participate in the pre-game anthem protests should be cut from their teams, the league fired back on Sunday with an unprecedented display of solidarity. In stadiums across the country (and the pond), hundreds of players took a knee or locked arms during the national anthem in a show of unity and defiance.

In acknowledgement of the gesture of civil disobedience adopted a year ago by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, players throughout the day dropped to one knee as the anthem played. In some cases, they were joined by team owners and coaches.

The league-wide protest got an early start, as dozens of players on the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars took a knee at around 9:40 a.m. EDT, as the anthem played in London's Wembley Stadium. The players who participated in the kneel-down rose for the subsequent playing of "God Save the Queen."

Speaking after the game, which was live-streamed on Yahoo, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs offered his rationale for joining in the protest. "Non-violent protest is as American as it gets," Suggs said. "We knelt with them today and let them know we are a unified front. There is no dividing us. I guess we're all sons of bitches."

Suggs' closing sentence was a direct response to the words President Trump said Friday night at a rally in support of Alabama Senator Luther Strange. "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired! He's fired!'" Trump said. The crowd responded with cheers and an impromptu chant of "USA! USA!"

Across the field from Suggs and his Ravens squad, Jags owner Shad Khan, who earlier in the year donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration committee, locked arms with tight end Mercedes Lewis and linebacker Telvin Smith.

Other owners who expressed solidarity with their players were Stephen Ross (Miami Dolphins) Martha Ford (Detroit Lions) and Arthur Blank (Atlanta Falcons).

The nine games that kicked off at 1 p.m. EDT were marked by similar displays. Perhaps the most striking was the no-show engineered by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who elected to stay behind in the Soldier Field visitors' locker room during the anthem. Offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a much-decorated Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, was the only Steeler who was on the field during the anthem; the 29-year-old stood at the edge of the tunnel, his hand held over his heart.

Later in the afternoon, the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans remained in their respective locker rooms as the anthem played before their late regional game on Fox. In a statement released Sunday afternoon, the Seahawks said their decision to not participate in the ceremony was a strike against the "injustice that has plagued people of color in this country." The Seattle statement went on to note that the team united to "oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms" and was driven by their "love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf."

Much of Sunday's activities had been telegraphed by NFL players via their social media accounts. As the president continued to grumble about the "total disrespect certain players show to our country," athletes like Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy showed little restraint in their response to the leader of the free world. (The NFL wasn't alone in raging against the Trump machine; after the president "un-invited" Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors from visiting the White House -- an honor they appeared wholly uninterested in accepting in the first place -- NBA superstar LeBron James lowered the twitter hammer with his now-infamous "U bum" rejoinder.

Broadcasters weighed in on the protests throughout the afternoon. Speaking on the "Fox NFL Sunday" pre-game show, studio analyst Terry Bradshaw said that while he didn't condone the anthem protests, he believed that it isn't the president's place to chastise any American for exercising his or her right to free speech.

"This is America. If our country stands for anything, folks, it's freedom. People died for that freedom," Bradshaw said. "I'm not sure if our president understands those rights. … Believe me, these athletes do love our this great country of ours. Personally, I think our president should concentrate on North Korea and healthcare rather than ripping into athletes and the NFL."

Howie Long echoed his colleague's sentiments, adding that the thing that was "getting lost in the form of the protest is the message of inequality." Kaepernick began taking a knee last season to protest racial inequality following a series of high-profile police shootings. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said after his third protest. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

In a postgame press conference Sunday afternoon, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees allowed that as much as he didn't agree with this particular form of protest, he wasn't thrilled with Trump's anti-NFL remarks.

"I disagree with what the President said and how he said it," Brees said while standing at the visitors' podium at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. "I think it's very unbecoming of the office of the president of the United States to talk like that, to degrade people like that. And, obviously, he's disappointed a lot of people."

Brees and the Saints beat the Carolina Panthers 34-13. Carolina was an outlier of sorts, as not a single Panther sat or kneeled during the anthem, although defensive end Julius Peppers cooled his heels in the locker room until the final strains of the song were heard. Like the vast majority of NFL players who did engage in an act of protest, the home team stood together with their arms linked. Among some of the most prominent players who stood in a human chain were Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Packers signal caller Aaron Rodgers.

In keeping with the near-ubiquity of the day's protests, two performers who sang the anthem Sunday also chose to take a knee while belting out the verses.

While the White House press pool would report that President Trump said he didn't watch any football (um, except for "a little bit"), he still managed to fire off a few expressive tweets about the day's events. Shortly after the president tweeted the message "Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!," the Oakland Raiders capped the day of silent dissent by touching their knees to the turf of Washington's FedEx Field or sitting out the anthem altogether.

NBC's sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya reported that the Raiders preferred to remain in the locker room during the anthem, but didn't want to risk incurring a delay-of-game penalty at the start of the prime-time broadcast.

Another Trump tweet erroneously slammed the NFL for its supposedly waning popularity ("attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN"). As is generally the case when the former "Celebrity Apprentice" host wades into the Nielsen data, misinformation is soon to follow. Only the regional windows are down significantly; meanwhile, the most-watched, highest-rated package, Fox's "NFL Game of the Week" is flat versus a year ago with an average draw of 24.4 million viewers, while NBC's "Sunday Night Football" is down 7 percent and ESPN's "Monday Night Football" has slipped just 5 percent.

The president also overstated the league's attendance exodus. Through the first two weeks of the season, the average in-stadium attendance is 66,797 fans, down just 5 percent year-to-year. (Worth noting: The first week saw Hurricane Irma wipe out the scheduled Bucs-Dolphins game, which was to have been played in Miami's Hard Rock Stadium, a venue that boasts 65,326 permanent seats.)

If today's NFL games were remarkable because of the sociological and political import of the protests, they were also an awful lot of fun to watch. Two contests were decided in overtime, and the margin of victory for three others was a mere field goal. Whether the weekend's feverish Twitter activity and on-field demonstrations of unity and discontent translate to a ratings bump is impossible to say at this juncture, but Ad Age will report the final Nielsen TV deliveries for all of Sunday's NFL action on Tuesday morning.

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