NFL players across the country sent a powerful message to President Trump, responding to his speech and latest tweet urging owners to “fire or suspend” players who protest by not standing for the national anthem.
The nationwide display was one the president praised in a midafternoon tweet, in which he stated that “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”
The day of demonstrations began in London, with the 9:30 a.m. EDT kickoff between the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars and they only intensified as the 1 p.m. games arrived. Most vivid was the sight of the empty Pittsburgh Steelers sideline in Chicago. Coach Mike Tomlin preferred to keep his players in the locker room altogether and two other teams followed suit later in the day.
Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, chose to stand at the head of the tunnel leading onto the field rather than remain in the locker room. Although Tomlin and several members of the staff were on the field, the team remained inside.
Both the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans followed the Steelers’ example. The Seahawks said in a statement: “As a team, we have decided we will not participate in the national anthem. We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms. We remain committed in continuing to work towards equality and justice for all.”
The scene was a little different in Gillette Stadium, where a few New England Patriots players took a knee and fans booed and chanted “Stand Up!”
In Philadelphia, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie stood on the sideline during the anthem and safety Malcolm Jenkins, as he always does, raised his fist. Eagles players linked arms as did Giants players across the field.
In London, before the start of the day’s first NFL game, Ravens Coach John Harbaugh joined his players, linking arms, and Ravens Hall of Famer Ray Lewis took a knee. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan locked arms with his players and the Jaguars’ coaches. Khan, who donated to Trump’s inaugural committee, was the second owner to participate in events related to anthem protests. Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam stood on field and locked arms with players, military personnel and first responders in Week 1 of the 2017 season. More joined as the day went on.
In Detroit, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank joined his players on the field.
Three Packers players took a knee as other players, including quarterback Aaron Rodgers, joined arms.
The pregame demonstrations overshadowed a number of entertaining and closely contested 1 p.m. games.
The Bears and Steelers needed overtime with Chicago scoring two touchdowns before being handed the win. A video review overturned an electric, would-be game-ending 73-yard run by Tarik Cohen on the second play of the extra session. Instead the play was ruled out of bounds after a 36 yard gain. The Bears’ Jordan Howard scored later on that drive with a 19-yard touchdown run to give Chicago its first win of the season, while handing Pittsburgh its first loss.
The New England Patriots nearly fell to 1-2 at the hands of rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans. Instead it was Tom Brady finding Brandin Cooks for the game-winning touchdown and two-point conversion with 23 seconds remaining to rally the Patriots to a 36-33 victory.
In Philadelphia, rookie Eagles kicker Jake Elliott blasted a 61-yard field goal to send the New York Giants to an 0-3 start, despite two touchdown catches – and two interesting celebrations – from wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Detroit suffered disappointment on the final play of the game. Wide receiver Golden Tate appeared to score a game-winning touchdown with 6 seconds remaining. On review, Tate was ruled down at the half yard line. By rule, the review required a 10-second runoff, ending the game and giving the Falcons a 30-26 win. Atlanta starts that season with a record of 3-0.
The game in London offered the first visible response to Trump’s Sunday morning messages.
“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country,” Trump tweeted at 6:44 a.m., “you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”
Trump went on to add that “NFL attendance and ratings [are] WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
That continued a Friday night tirade in which President Trump used a profanity to describe NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and social inequality brought a torrent of responses from players, the NFL commissioner, the head of the NFL players’ union and more than a half-dozen owners. It brought condemnation from the NBA’s biggest stars and ensured that Sunday’s games will now focus on the White House.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural and presented him with a Super Bowl LI ring, said in a statement Sunday that he was “deeply disappointed by the tone” of Trump’s comments.
“I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities,” Kraft said. “Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger. There is no greater unifier in this country than sports and, unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal. Our players are intelligent, thoughtful and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin defended Trump’s comments, saying that players “have the right to have their First Amendment off the field. This is a job.”
The Raiders, except for a few individuals, sat as a team on the bench during the anthem ahead of the Sunday night game vs. the Redskins. Owner Mark Davis said earlier that they had his full support, telling ESPN: “Over the last year … the streets have gotten hot and there has been a lot of static in the air and recently, fuel has been added to the fire. I can no longer ask our team to not say something while they are in a Raider uniform. The only thing I can ask them to do is do it with class. Do it with pride. Not only do we have to tell people there is something wrong, we have to come up with answers. That’s the challenge in front of us as Americans and human beings.”
The Redskins, including owner Daniel Snyder, linked arms on the sideline, while several knelt. The team released a statement around the same time, but did not specifically mention the president’s tweets as many other owners had done so earlier Sunday.
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