The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a world polarized by Trump, FedEx Field becomes unlikely oasis

Redskins players during the national anthem Sunday night. (John McDonnell/ The Washington Post)

Football fans availed themselves of all manner of speech Sunday night at FedEx Field. They spoke about their friends in other cities (yes, there was a “Dallas Sucks” jersey) and about their opponent this week (“Kerrigan is gonna send Lynch to #Hail” read one banner). Cheering is speech, in a way, and so is booing: Fans booed the Raiders, and they booed the officials, and yes, many booed the Oakland players for sitting and kneeling during the national anthem.

But after the anthem, those fans who filled FedEx Field didn’t leave. The guy in the Raiders jersey shaking his head and saying he was pissed at his favorite team didn’t walk out. Neither did 31-year-old Chris Jones, wearing his “Impeach Trump” T-shirt. Mary-Alice Shiflette, a 54-year-old Redskins fan from Fairfax, said she felt “a twinge of guilt” as she drove to the stadium, because she doesn’t support this current wave of athlete protests, but she was there, too. Why?

“Sheer entertainment, for goodness sake,” she said. “The way the world is now, if you don’t capitalize on the fun times, you will die an unhappy person.”

President Trump this weekend seemed to strike down “stick to sports” forever, tweeting repeatedly about three major sports leagues, mobilizing locker rooms and press boxes, and pointedly suggesting that Americans might want to boycott the NFL as long as player protests continue.

“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast,” he wrote. He retweeted an image calling for an NFL boycott, and suggested that many fans already stay away from stadiums “because they love our country.”

In showings of protest and solidarity, NFL teams respond to Trump

Look, you don’t remain in Landover’s most famous stretch of asphalt until near midnight on a work night unless you’re already disinclined to boycott the sport. But what was most striking as I wandered around the FedEx Field parking lots Sunday afternoon was how willing people were to discuss politics with a stranger — civilly, mostly, and without rolling their eyes or once suggesting I should keep politics out of their tailgate. (Maybe it’s easier to be civil before the Budweiser starts flowing, but still.)

There was the woman in the FLOTUS hat and the American flag pin who said she wished her political opponents would sit down with her, eat some bacon-wrapped barbecue shrimp and “talk about it intellectually.” There was the guy in the American flag T-shirt who called himself “a great patriot” but who ultimately decided that “it’s America” and “players can do whatever they want.” There was the daughter of a World War II veteran who said she was raised on patriotic respect and wished players would stand, but that “I’m also dedicated to freedom of speech, and I think players have a right to express themselves.”

And especially there was Sam Lee, a 45-year-old black Raiders fan and Army veteran from Arizona, and Tyler Lego, a 22-year-old white Redskins fan from Montgomery County, who started their conversation by talking about the vast hordes of Raiders fans flooding into the venue and ended it by talking about the president.

“See this right here?” Lee said, putting his arm around Lego and hugging the younger man. “This is what we’re going to keep doing to make sure we defeat that [divisiveness]. It’s all love,” he said, words that Lego and his friend then repeated. “We’re going to do the opposite of what [Trump] wants us to do. If this guy falls, I’d pick him up. I can still meet guys like this. This brings people together.”

Trump’s remarks drag NFL owners into political debate

Maybe I’m too sentimental — or maybe I just inhaled too often around those Raiders tailgates — but anytime strangers in opposite jerseys are pledging their mutual love, I count it as a win. When I left them, Lego was saying hi to Lee’s German wife on FaceTime.

A few steps away, past the guy in the Pinhead costume drinking a Michelob Ultra, the D.C. Raiders Booster Club tailgate was roaring, with 600 paid diners. And its executive director, Lizette Cardenas of Centreville, said they weren’t sticking to sports, either. She and many of her friends had discussed Trump’s comments during the afternoon, deciding that they would stay seated during the anthem, in solidarity with the athletes they cheered.

“Trump’s comments weren’t necessary. He just went too far,” said Cardenas, who served 15 years in the Navy. “I think he should stay in the White House and try to do his job; we’re going to continue coming out and supporting our team.”

Jerry Brewer: The NFL responds to Trump by embracing its diversity

To some extent, of course, you hear what you want to hear. Stopping by 10 or 12 tailgates can’t give you the temperature of 70,000 people, and of course there were others with stronger words, people who cursed out Trump, and people who cursed out the demonstrating players. One man told me if the Redskins stayed in the locker room as the Pittsburgh Steelers had done, he would be sending a letter to Daniel Snyder, threatening to cancel his season tickets. Another told me he had considered boycotting the sport this fall out of his support for Colin Kaepernick, and his concern that the quarterback is being blackballed.

But there were others who were either indifferent or opposed to the idea of kneeling during the national anthem, but who wanted to speak out in favor of that right. This is the very bare minimum of support — the sort of anodyne support offered by most of those team statements — a mostly bland vote to permit peaceful dissent. But in an era when the president calls those quietly protesting players sons of bitches, it felt like a basic vote for civility, at a place that doesn’t always reek of that trait. When I think of FedEx Field, I think of fights and vomiting and sadness, not heartfelt comments about the First Amendment.

“I might not agree with what they’re protesting about, but they have a right to do it,” said Randy Jaegle of Virginia.

“I think the players should do whatever they want,” said Dan Person of Washington.

“Even though I don’t agree with it myself, I believe they have a right to express their own beliefs,” said Chris Josephs, 54, of Fairfax Station. “That — more than anything else — is what this country stands for.”

In a way, Trump’s comments seemed almost to de-politicize the once-polarizing protests, turning them into less a debate about substantive issues and more a basic vote for decency. A few fans told me they would consider staying away if protests continue or intensify, but more told me the reverse: that football would remain their escape.

“Oh my God, no,” said 72-year-old Barbara Wilks, when I asked if she might stay away. “I want to come to a football game.”

And more than one person — from both sides of the political aisle — said that if they ever started boycotting football, it would be because of Daniel Snyder, and not Donald Trump. See? Unity can be a wonderful thing.

Read more coverage:

Jerry Brewer: The NFL responds to Trump by embracing its diversity

Jaguars owner who stood with his team has espoused American Dream

Sally Jenkins: NFL shows restraint in the face of vulgarity — and gets it right

‘Surreal’: Curry, Warriors have plenty to say about not visiting the White House

NFL Week 3: Raiders sit as a team; Steelers, Titans, Seahawks skip anthem