From left, Tennessee’s Delanie Walker, Marcus Mariota, Wesley Woodyard, Jurrell Casey and Brian Orakpo walk to the field with arms linked after the national anthem had been played before last weekend’s game against the Seahawks. (James Kenney/AP)

Titans tight end Delanie Walker said on social media Thursday that he and his family have had death threats in the wake of comments he made after his team’s national anthem protest Sunday. Tennessee players stayed in their locker room during the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after which Walker asserted that fans who didn’t like it didn’t have to come to games.

“The death threats that my family and I have received since my comments are heartbreaking,” Walker said in an Instagram post, which accompanied a photo of him visiting troops in the Middle East. “The racist and violent words directed at me and my son only serve as another reminder that our country remains divided and full of hateful rhetoric.”

The Titans were one of three teams Sunday that stayed off the sideline altogether during the national anthem, as other teams staged different demonstrations, including more than 200 players who knelt. The Seahawks, who were playing the Titans in Nashville, also chose to not appear rather than have players react to the anthem in separate ways, as did the Steelers, who were playing the Bears in Chicago.

After Tennessee defeated Seattle, Walker told reporters (via The Tennessean), “First off, I’m going to say this: We’re not disrespecting the military, the men and women that serve in the Army. That’s not what it’s all about. If you look at most of the guys in here — I’ve been in the USO. I support the troops. This is not about that. It’s about equal rights, and that’s all everyone is trying to show, is that we all care about each other.

“And the fans that don’t want to come to the game? I mean, okay. Bye.

“I mean, if you feel that’s something [where] we’re disrespecting you, don’t come to the game. You don’t have to. No one’s telling you to come to the game. It’s your freedom of choice to do that.”

The 33-year-old Walker, in his fifth season with the Titans, reiterated in his online comments Thursday that while “in the Middle East on the NFL’s USO Tour this spring,” he gained “an appreciation for America’s core values and an even greater appreciation for the men and women that defend those values.”

“In being asked about our team’s decision on Sunday to stay in the locker room for the National Anthem, I used strong words to defend our right to make our own choices,” Walker said. “Both my choice to spark dialogue for positive change and the fans’ choice to attend our games. It’s that freedom of choice that makes our democracy the envy of many around the world.”

Walker is the first NFL player who has said he’s received death threats, but others have felt a backlash. Saints players Kenny Vaccaro and Alex Okafor, who sat on a bench during the anthem, had invitations rescinded to serve as grand marshals for a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.

Some Louisiana lawmakers have threatened to cut state funds to the Saints, and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said he won’t attend the team’s game this week against the Dolphins in London, even though he will be in that city. In Pennsylvania, a fire chief apologized after calling Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin a “no-good n—–” for his role in Pittsburgh’s protest.

Lions defensive tackle Akeem Spence said on Twitter on Thursday that his anthem protest led to his father, a contractor, being denied a job on a house. Spence was among eight Detroit players who took a knee before their game Sunday against the Falcons.

Walker was not the only protester at the Titans-Seahawks game who suffered death threats. Singer Meghan Linsey, who took a knee after performing the anthem, said she has had a hard time dealing with the vitriol she’s received, which has included people telling her they hoped she would get cancer.

“I’ve been waking up with anxiety a lot and it’s hard to eat food and sleep, but other than that, I’m good,” Linsey told The Tennessean. “I feel like I did the right thing. I don’t have any regrets.”

Linsey echoed Walker and many other NFL players in saying that her act of protest “wasn’t a matter of standing against our flag or our military.” She explained, “I was standing up for a cause that I believe in. I think that’s a testament of where we are as a country, that it can be so divisive and so volatile. We’re starting to see that more and more since the election. I just haven’t had it directed at me.”

It remains to be seen what sort of anthem demonstrations take place in NFL games this weekend, but the Packers and Bears got things started Thursday by standing with their arms linked on their respective sidelines. After their game, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers referred to President Trump by saying that the teams had made an “effort to show unity in the face of some divisiveness from the top of our country.”

Trump had angered NFL players and provoked statements of rebuke from many team owners in comments last Friday about anthem protests. The president told a rally in Alabama that any player who knelt was a “son of a bitch” who needed to be “fired.”

Of the mass NFL protests, Walker told reporters Sunday, “It was all because of 45’s comments on Friday, obviously, or it would have never happened.” Noting that his father was in the Marines, Tennessee’s Rishard Matthews said Sunday that he intends to kneel during the anthem until Trump “apologizes” for the “foul, disrespectful statements he made.”

On Thursday, Walker said of his death threats, “These words of hate will only fuel me in my efforts to continue my work reaching out to different community groups, listening to opposing voices, and honoring the men and women in the Armed Forces who risk their lives every day so that we may have this dialogue.

“I am proud to represent the many faces of Titans fans and believe that only through a more respectful discourse can we achieve the goals of unity, peace and racial equality that I know we all strive for.”

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