Players from several NFL teams peacefully protested President Trump's recent comments during the national anthem on game day Sunday, Sept. 24. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The NFL players stood, knelt, raised fists, sat, abstained . . . whatever felt right. They did it mostly as a team, a collection of individuals who choose to play together and sacrifice for each other. During the national anthem, they didn’t act like a brainwashed mass who had traded their diversity just to wear the same colors.

The latter is a flat and uninformed way to view the concept of team, and the same could be said for the different ways we act as American citizens. You have to understand that to grasp the power and poignancy of one of the most meaningful Sundays in NFL history. Throughout the nation and in London, the league responded to President Trump’s scathing, profane and ignorant criticism by showing him two things he can neither comprehend nor inspire as a leader: empathy and unity.

No matter the contrasting reactions, the NFL looked united, arms locked, black and white, Ravens and Jaguars, Buccaneers and Vikings. Some owners even stood tightly with their players. Everyone else took roll: Who’s protesting? Who’s not? What choice did Tom Brady and other megastars make? But as has been the case since Colin Kaepernick started his demonstration last year, the act is only a provocative billboard to relay an important message.

On this day, when football always takes siege of our interest, the NFL’s actions referenced fundamental human necessities that too much of America seems to have misplaced. The prevailing statement was rather simple, at least for people who have the decency to resist acting like Trump and labeling an athlete protesting police brutality and equality a “son of a bitch.” It was about having concern for the person next to you and showing that unity doesn’t require shaming others to think the way you do.

President Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the national anthem, during a rambling speech in Alabama Sept. 22. (Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

At a rally in Alabama on Friday night, Trump shouted: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag; he’s fired.’ And that owner . . . they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

It’s all part of his new agenda: To put the sports world — which happens to be full of rich athletes, many of whom are minorities, who have huge followings and aren’t afraid to live as independent thinkers — in its supposed place. How dare ESPN’s Jemele Hill call Trump a “white supremacist,” even though he treated Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville with more fairness than Steph Curry? How dare Curry and the Golden State Warriors not jump at the chance to visit him at the White House? The invitation is withdrawn! And how dare these NFL court jesters have concerns about equality? Stand for the flag! And while we’re talking football, change the rules back and let them beat their brains out like they did during the good ol’ days!

What’s another player suffering from CTE and committing suicide mean to the current president? It’s as far down his list of priorities as the fears of the oppressed. It shouldn’t be shocking that Trump cares so little about NFL players. They’re just the latest on a long list of people he wishes would shut up and allow life to be shoved down their throat.

On the surface, it would have been stronger and more radical if every NFL player had taken a knee, or walked off the field during the national anthem, or pulled a no-show like the Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and all but one Pittsburgh Steeler did. (Coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers’ act wasn’t a protest but a decision to resist being forced to do anything.) But in this current United States climate, locking arms and showing respect to the next person — whether he is using his constitutional right to make a peaceful expression or choosing to honor the flag — is profound.

At its worst, the NFL is a controlling and conniving league. Over the years, I’ve written about its frustrating ways. But in this moment, with Trump spewing venom and the players needing direction, Commissioner Roger Goodell helped make Sunday special by communicating with team owners, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and others to ensure that the league reacted in a thoughtful manner.

In many stadiums, fans booed players who took a knee and chanted for them to respect the flag. That was expected after Trump’s version of a pep talk Friday night. It is also within those fans’ First Amendment rights. Protesting during the anthem, with the flag on full display, is a complicated and infuriating gesture. But that’s the essence of a protest. If you meekly stand behind your concerns and follow every rule, no one will notice and care about your cause. Disobedience gets attention. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not like the athletes are fighting for more money. They want our country to stop moonwalking on equality. Bury the sentiment with your disgust, but that’s the origin of the disagreement. And it’s unlikely to end without an honest recognition of the issue.

President Trump's Aug. 22 speech in Alabama and his tweet that rescinded Stephen Curry's invitation to the White House prompted celebrities, athletes and coaches to publicly respond to his statements. (The Washington Post)

Kaepernick is off the grid, out of the NFL and uninterested, for now, in granting interviews about his plight as this era’s most polarizing sports protester. Many would say that he lost. Disobedient, un-American SOB, right? The irony is that Trump just gave more attention and credibility to Kaepernick’s defiance by admonishing the NFL’s new group of protesters. The story has long been a lightning rod, but now it’s hotter than ever. There was no way to avoid it over the weekend. Now, if only more attention and credibility would be given to the actual cause — fighting injustice.

“We have this narrative that these protests are contradictory to our flag and contradictory to our military,” Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner said Sunday morning on the NFL Network. “I don’t see them that way. I see them as complementary to the ideals to the flag, to the military and what they fought for — the servicemen and women and what they fought for. I have not heard one player that has not been more than grateful to our military. This isn’t about that at all; it’s about standing up for the ideals of the flag.”

On Sunday, the response was about standing up for the ideals of the NFL. Before their displays during the anthem, teams made statements denouncing Trump’s speech, and all of their carefully crafted words alluded to the common theme that sports unify people.

Unity defined Sunday — not oversimplified tripe about unity, not an attempt to make everyone obey and seem unified — but true unity. The stadiums weren’t full of like-minded players or fans. Players didn’t stand for the same reasons; they didn’t kneel for the same reasons. Fans didn’t boo for the same reasons; they didn’t show support for the same reasons. But they came together, tens of thousands of people all over the place, and they made the points they needed to make. And hostility couldn’t measure up to how good it felt just to be heard.

Then the games started, and people rooted for their favorite colors, and a good sports meal wasn’t ruined because you had to eat your vegetables first. The NFL beat Trump. Soundly.

To twist the sports cliche du jour, perhaps Trump should stick to trying to run a country that barely resembles itself right now. The sports world will continue what it does best: embrace differences and manage conflict on a field of play.