Paul Richardson Jr. has no children, but he already knows the lesson he will pass on to his future offspring. He will encourage them, regardless of their gender, to be themselves, to speak their truth and to not be afraid to voice their opinions. Doing so isn’t always easy as a player in the NFL, he acknowledged, but the Washington Redskins wide receiver said he knows no other way.

Careful to speak only for himself and not his teammates or his organization, Richardson was pointed in his stance on the ongoing furor involving the NFL, the players’ right to protest social injustice and police brutality during the national anthem and President Trump.

Richardson, 26, has never knelt during the anthem, nor does he plan to. But during an 11-minute interview following practice Wednesday, he was adamant that freedom of expression shouldn’t be a conditional right for athletes.

“When we use our platform, and it’s in favor of the majority, everybody is appreciative of the athletes,” Richardson said a day after President Trump disinvited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to the White House. “. . . But when it’s ruffling feathers and guys are using their platform, it becomes a big issue and now we need to just ‘stick to basketball, stick to coaching, stick to playing.’ And that’s not fair because you want us to just be athletes or entertainers and we’re trying to be as human as possible.”

Residents of Philadelphia responded after President Trump disinvited the 2018 Super Bowl champions to a White House ceremony on June 5. (Patrick Martin, Branden Eastwood/The Washington Post)

Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest social injustice and police brutality during the 2016 season initiated a debate that became a full-scale controversy when President Trump weighed in last fall. In comments at rallies and on Twitter, Trump has taken aim at league owners and their players. He has called kneeling players “sons of bitches,” questioned whether players who don’t stand for the national anthem should remain in the country, and urged owners to require players to stand during the anthem.

While Richardson noted that he’s “not a real political person,” he voiced frustration over the attention now being paid to the NFL’s patriotism and its relationship to the anthem.

“We don’t have a deep history of being out [on the sideline] for the national anthem. That’s new still,” Richardson said. “So it’s crazy to me how much of a problem it is and it wasn’t a problem before when nobody was out there.”

President Trump spoke about patriotism and respect for the American flag on June 5, after canceling the Philadelphia Eagles’ celebration. (The White House)

Redskins rookie running back Derrius Guice shared similar frustrations.

“It just shows what today’s country really is. Guys like ourselves, we should have a voice,” said Guice, Washington’s second-round pick.

Although Guice said he’s “not into all that kneeling and stuff,” he added, “I’m going to always have my NFL brothers’ back over anybody else’s.”

Richardson cited the lack of guaranteed contracts for NFL players as a factor in the dynamics of the relationship with ownership and league policies. Kaepernick and his former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid remain unsigned free agents, Richardson suggested they aren’t the only football players “who have been hindered” by speaking publicly about social issues.

“I do believe that it’s stopping people from feeding their families,” Richardson said. “It’s top-down. . . . It’s the power on top of the organizations, then it’s the organization. Then the people that are running these organizations need structure, and they want to be on the good side of whoever is at the top. So how do you create structure? You don’t bring that in and deal with that attention. And that’s really unfortunate.”

The challenge for NFL players is living within the “gray area,” Richardson said, walking the tightrope of what it means to represent the NFL shield and what it means to use one’s platform in a meaningful way.

“It’s more than just football to some players,” said Guice, 20, who added he doesn’t “like the steps that the president is taking towards us. . . . Everybody wants us to be good role models, but you’re teaching people now that we don’t have a voice. It’s not a good message for our youth. . . . And I just feel like it’s not really fair to us.”

While Trump has rallied his supporters around the anthem issue, Richardson pointed out that some military personnel have spoken out in support of players’ rights to express themselves. The receiver also stressed that he’s determined to be an example for his nieces, nephews, godchildren and his future children.

“How are they going to learn if they’re in a box?” he asked. “What? Everybody’s going to be mute?

“What do ya’ll want us to do? We show up every day. We work hard. The least we could do is be able to express ourselves — the stuff that we have the right to do. . . . I’m not going to teach my [future] kids to grow up and wear a mask. That’s not right.”

Read more: