National anthem demonstrations remain a predominant theme Sunday, with NFL owners and NFL Players Association representatives set to consider at this week’s ownership meetings how to channel the activism and passions shown by those who take a knee or link arms into community action.
The challenge for the NFL’s owners remains finding a compromise that pleases fans and players alike rather than issuing a mandate as they consider whether to alter the game-day guidelines that say players “should” stand for the anthem to something stronger.
Sunday brought the latest wave of demonstrations, including from Colin Kaepernick’s former team, the San Francisco 49ers. Six active members of the team, along with one inactive, took a knee at Washington’s FedEx Field in their first appearance since their display last week prompted Vice President Pence to walk out of the game in Indianapolis.
Elsewhere across the nation, a small number of players in the 1 p.m. EDT games took a knee and in Minneapolis, the Green Bay Packers chose to continue to stand, with players linking arms, before the game against the Vikings. TV networks continue to cut away to commercials before the anthem, as was their practice on regular-season games before the whole controversy arose.
Eric Reid, who has taken over the team’s leadership on the matter since Kaepernick became a free agent, promises the 49ers will continue to be out front on the issue. He and his teammates have, he says, the backing of owner Jed York, who has “expressed very clearly that he wants to support us,” Reid said. “That he’s not going to force us to do anything. Speaking for our team, that’s what he’s told me explicitly.”
It’s a dicier issue for Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has said he believes that “everyone should stand for the national anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.” However, he has also stressed that players have the right to free speech. Among owners, there appears to be no unanimity of opinion. Jerry Jones has said that any member of his Dallas Cowboys who does not stand for the anthem will be benched and Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins feels the same way. (The Cowboys do not play this weekend.) However, Ross’s coach, Adam Gase, gave his players permission to remain in the tunnel during the anthem and Michael Thomas, Julian Thomas and Kenny Stils, who have long protested, remained there Sunday.
Forcing players to stand isn’t the answer, according to the Eagles’ Chris Long. A native of Charlottesville, he has endowed two scholarships at his high school alma mater in the wake of violence there in August and has stood with teammate Malcolm Jenkins as he has protested during the anthem.
“At the end of the day at this point, I think it’s important for the league to continue to try to investigate how they can provide a better vehicle for players to promote the things they’re trying to accomplish in the community as they relate to injustice, inequality and things they want to get done legislatively in their communities,” Long said. “I believe if the league put their best foot forward and provides the lifeblood of the league, which are the players, the opportunity to do this in a better vehicle than the national anthem, then you might see less people kneeling, but I don’t think mandating that players can’t kneel is gonna be the answer. I think you’ll see a messier situation.”
One answer suggested has been for players to stay in the locker room for the anthem, as they did before 2009 (except before the Super Bowl and on 9/11). But that won’t solve the chasm over this issue. Nate Boyer, the former Green Beret who played briefly in the NFL, suggested in an open letter published by ESPN that Kaepernick and President Trump sit down in a summit meeting of sorts to discuss their beliefs. He followed up on a letter he wrote a year ago and wrote how “much more hurt” he feels now at the divisions in the country.
“Not by [Kaepernick], not by where we’re at now with the protests, but by us,” he wrote. “Simply put, it seems like we just hate each other; and that is far more painful to me than any protest, or demonstration, or rally, or tweet.”
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