On the first Sunday of games after a meeting last week at which owners and players discussed ways to channel their activist message about police brutality and social injustice into action, the Associated Press counted 22 players out of more than 1,600 who protested in some fashion before day games. Individuals variously knelt, locked arms or raised a fist. Three Miami Dolphins and a Tennessee Titans player, with the permission of their coaches, did not take the field for the anthem. In New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, several members of the Seattle Seahawks remained seated on the bench during the anthem. During warm-ups, the Indianapolis Colts wore black T-shirts that said “We Will” on the front and “Stand for equality, justice, unity, respect, dialogue, opportunity” on the back. They locked arms as they stood for the anthem.
Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving had promised to do something, saying “it’s not about the flag in the first place, you know,” and his demonstration involved raising a fist after the anthem, for which he stood. “I know that he was very deliberate during the anthem, and of course that’s the issue with me,” owner Jerry Jones said. “I’m very proud of the way they all handled themselves.”
Jones had threatened any Cowboy who did not stand with benching, but last week’s meetings showed that there was division among owners, who left without enacting an edict to stand, much to the displeasure of Trump, who had tweeted, “Total disrespect for our country!” Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan spoke up to say Trump’s frequent criticism stems from being “jealous” of Khan and other owners. Khan also called the president “a divider, not a uniter,” and claimed that Trump’s “attacks” on some minority groups, including Muslims and Jews, are far more “offensive” than any NFL issue.
John Mara, the Giants’ co-owner, had asked his players to stand and was not pleased when some did not, but he admitted that he has mellowed because of what he’s learned from them. “I think my position has evolved a little bit,” Mara said. “When it first happened, I think I probably had a little more of a hard-line position on it. But since I’ve spoken to players and heard what they’ve had to say and tried to understand what it is they’re protesting, I think my position has evolved a little bit.”
Jed York, who owns the San Francisco 49ers team for which Colin Kaepernick was playing when he started the demonstrations in the summer of 2016, thinks the players’ message has been subverted. The protest was never about the military; it was about police brutality and injustice, as Kaepernick made clear from the start.
“That’s the disappointing thing in this is that his message has been lost about what he’s been fighting for,” York said. “And I think that’s one of the things that’s really struck me is the more you sit down with our players and hear what they’re about, what they are fighting for, it’s really, really hard to disagree with them. And I think the more that we can get that message out and understand what they’re fighting for and why they’re fighting for it, the easier that it’s gonna be to make progress.”
In the meantime, the New York Times’ Upshot blog finds that the NFL has become one of the most divisive brands in the United States as it seeks common ground between a player population that is predominantly black and a fan base that is mostly white.
“There is no question the league is suffering negative effects from these protests,” Jones said. “I care about a lot of things, but our ability to be substantive is based on having a strong NFL, a league that people are really interested in and want to watch games. At all times, if I am anything, I am first and foremost a proponent of making the NFL strong. Making us have as many people watching the game as we can and watching in light of what we are doing and that’s playing football.
“If all this makes you stronger to represent messages, let’s don’t do it in a way that tears down the strength of the NFL.”
Owners and players will meet again this week to discuss their next steps.
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