Aaron Rodgers (12) and his fellow Packers stand and link arms during the national anthem before a game against the Bears. (Maury Tannen/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The first game of the NFL’s fourth week brought more demonstrations during the national anthem when players for the Packers and Bears, as well as some fans at Green Bay’s Lambeau Stadium, stood and linked arms. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his team had called on their home supporters to join them in a display of “unity and love” before a Thursday night game broadcast to a national television audience.

None of the Green Bay or Chicago players appeared to be kneeling during the anthem, a form of protest in which more than 200 players engaged on Sunday, when every NFL game was marked by anthem demonstrations. Reports from Lambeau indicated that most of the 81,000-plus fans in attendance did not link arms, as some saluted and many stood with their hands over their hearts.

Before the anthem was performed by country singer Tyler Farr, many fans chanted “U-S-A!” as a large American flag was unfurled on the field. As players linked arms on their respective sidelines, some fans reportedly booed, although others at the stadium reported that they did not hear any booing.

While the anthem ceremony was taking place, President Trump remained silent on Twitter, which he has used frequently to criticize NFL players who have knelt during the anthem. Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked that form of protest last season, when he said he was trying to bring attention to issues of racial injustice, particularly killings of unarmed black men by police.

In the absence of Kaepernick, who has been a free agent since March, a handful of players continued those protests early in the season, but 200-plus players knelt last week during the national anthem. Other demonstrations included players and, in some cases, team owners linking arms. Before ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” the Dallas Cowboys briefly took a knee on the field and then stood with arms linked for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Demonstrations of some sort took place in every NFL game last weekend, prompted largely by Trump’s comments Friday, in which he called any player who kneels during the anthem a “son of a bitch.” Trump went on to urge owners to fire or suspend those players.

Rodgers had some fun Wednesday with the cause of Trump’s ire, sharing a photo of himself and his teammates with arms linked while cameramen knelt to film them before Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. “I can’t imagine what kind of social media attacks these cameramen must be enduring after taking a knee during the anthem and wearing a hat,” he wrote. “#unity #equalityforall #love #cometogether #invitationtojoin.”

Rodgers heard about it in the responses, with one fan writing, “You’re biting the hand that feeds you” and another reminding him that “people are going for the sole purpose of the entertainment of watching a football game. They are not going to see you lock hands with your teammates.”

“This is about equality,” Rodgers said Tuesday about the message the players want to send. “This is about unity and love and growing together as a society and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people. But we’ve got to come together and talk about these things and grow as a community, as a connected group of individuals in our society, and we’re going to continue to show love and unity, and this week we’re going to ask the fans to join in as well and come together and show people that we can be connected and we can grow together.”

Rodgers, a two-time NFL MVP and a Super Bowl winner who plays for a team with a huge national fan base and more than 360,000 stockholders, has an enormous national megaphone, but so, too, does Trump. The Cowboys’ demonstration prompted him to call owner Jerry Jones, who took a knee with his players before the anthem and then rose with them to stand for it. Trump tweeted that he had called Jones after the game and “Fox & Friends” aired an interview with the president Thursday morning in which he accused NFL owners of being scared of their players. Trump added that he had talked to several owners and said they are “in a box” on the anthem issue.

“I think they’re afraid of their players, if you want to know the truth, and I think it’s disgraceful,” Trump said in an interview recorded Wednesday. “They’ve got to be tough, and they’ve got to be smart.”

Players from several NFL teams protested President Trump's recent comments before and during the national anthem on game day Sunday. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

“We’ve had a steady stream of feedback beginning Monday morning and it continued into Wednesday. We’ve heard on both sides of the matter,” Aaron Popkey, the Packers’ director of public affairs, said to the Journal Sentinel of the team’s plan for an anthem demonstration. “We take note of their concerns.”

In the wake of Trump’s criticism, many NFL teams struggled with how to respond, as some players preferred not to kneel but most wanted to present some sort of unified reaction. While three teams, the Steelers, Seahawks and Titans, opted to stay in the locker room altogether, several chose to stand with their arms linked, a decision Trump applauded.

“Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”

However, some players are concerned that their statements of concern about police brutality and social injustice are becoming muddled. Michael Bennett, who has continued to kneel during the anthem, and Seattle Seahawks teammate Doug Baldwin reminded CNN viewers Wednesday night of the message begun by Kaepernick, one they said was not aimed at the military.

“It’s not a disrespect,” Baldwin said. “We’re honoring those who have sacrificed their lives in order for us to use our First Amendment rights.”

The Denver Broncos issued a statement from their players Thursday, in which they said, “Starting Sunday, we’ll be standing together.” Last Sunday, more than 30 Broncos players took a knee during the national anthem, then team leaders convened this week to discuss how to proceed in future games.

“Last week, members of our team joined their brothers around the NFL in a powerful display of unity,” the Broncos said in their statement. “It was an emotional time for everyone, including the fans who support us each and every week. As controversial as it appeared, we needed to show our collective strength and resolve. Our voiced needed to be heard loud and clear.”

The Broncos, like many other NFL players, emphasized that their anthem demonstrations “were in no way a protest of the military, the flag or those who keep us safe.” They added, “We have nothing but the deepest love and respect for those who protect our way of life and the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. While there’s no greater country, it’s not perfect. Inequalities still exist, and we have work to do in ALL forms of social justice. We can all do better.

“It starts with us. We need to do our part and use our platform as NFL players to continue driving that positive change.”

Rodgers has taken to giving away his game tickets to fans who win a contest, such as solving a puzzle, answering a trivia question or using clues to find hidden the prize. “I’m having a blast doing it,” Rodgers told ESPN in August. “I was thinking about what would be a cool way to connect with the fans.”

On Thursday, though, about four hours before the Packers game started, the quarterback announced to his social-media followers that, this week, there would be no “Rodgers ticket hunt.” Instead, he was giving his tickets to Green Bay police officers.

After the game, in which he threw four touchdown passes as Green Bay won easily, Rodgers referred to Trump in telling reporters that the teams’ act of linking arms was an “effort to show unity in the face of some divisiveness from the top of our country.” He added, “This has been a galvanizing situation for us. … Sports and politics have always intersected, and if we can help continue a conversation through a demonstration of unity like tonight, I think that’s a good thing.”

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