Miss Virginia Emili McPhail speaks with reporters after winning the onstage interview portion of the second night of preliminary competition in the Miss America pageant. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

On a day when the NFL kicked off its regular season — in an NBC telecast that included a Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick — a Miss America contestant was asked about the player protests that have roiled the league and drawn the ire of President Trump.

The answer provided Thursday by Miss Virginia Emili McPhail, in which she emphasized that the protests were trying to bring attention to “police brutality,” earned her a preliminary-round win in the onstage question category.

McPhail, 22, was asked what advice she would offer NFL players, in terms of possibly standing or kneeling during pregame renditions of the national anthem. “Kneeling during the national anthem is absolutely a right that you have, to stand up for what you believe in, and to make the right decision that’s right for you,” she replied (via the Press of Atlantic City).

“It’s very important that we also have to take into consideration that it is not about kneeling: It is absolutely about police brutality,” McPhail continued.

After winning a prize of a scholarship worth $1,000, McPhail was asked if she was concerned about any possible negative reaction to what she said. The issue of player protests has vexed the NFL and proved divisive among its fans, and Trump has used frequent criticisms of the demonstrations to rally his base.

“I said standing up for what you believe in is the most important thing that you can do, and that’s what I did,” McPhail said. “I was very happy to have that moment, to be honest, because it’s not always easy.”

A graduate of Hollins University, McPhail won the Miss Virginia pageant in June with an official platform of “Ending Hunger in the U.S.,” as well as by showing talent on the piano. She is competing for the 2019 national crown in Atlantic City, where contestants are in the midst of three days of preliminary competition before the finals take place on Sunday.

The question McPhail was asked reflects the ongoing interest in the protests, which players have said are aimed to raise awareness of racial injustice, but which have been criticized by some, including Trump, as unpatriotic and disrespectful to the military. The NFL attempted to impose a policy in May that would have barred players from kneeling or sitting while on the sidelines during the anthem while also giving them the option of remaining in the locker room, but the policy was put on hold in July to allow the league and players’ union to come to an agreement acceptable to both sides.

The parties have yet to arrive at such an agreement, meaning that players were free to stage protests before preseason games and Thursday’s season opener between the Eagles and the Falcons. The only reported incident during the game in Philadelphia came when Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett, who had been sitting during the anthem for the past two seasons while a member of the Seahawks, took a seat on the bench toward the end of the performance of the anthem by Boyz II Men.

The Nike ad has, to some degree, re-energized the debate over the protests by putting the weight of the sports-apparel giant behind Kaepernick, who was the first player to sit, then kneel, during the anthem but has been unable to latch on with a team since becoming a free agent in March 2017. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” Kaepernick tweeted recently, in a recitation of a slogan attached to his involvement in the “Just Do It” campaign.

McPhail got the win Thursday in a newly installed category, as, for the first time in the pageant’s 97-year history, it is eschewing a swimsuit competition. That significant change, ushered in under first-year Miss America Organization chairwoman Gretchen Carlson, the 1989 pageant winner who went on to become a Fox News anchor before filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against former network chairman Roger Ailes, has reportedly not gone over well with everyone associated with the event.

Carlson is also under fire from the reigning Miss America, Cara Mund, who has accused her and pageant CEO Regina Hopper of bullying and seeking to silence Mund. The organization responded in August (via NJ.com) by claiming that Mund was guilty of “mischaracterizations and many unfounded accusations.”

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