Sports columnist

Barry Svrluga

It's almost too soon to digest an unprecedented and historic Sunday in the NFL, when the only way to lead into "Sunday Night Football" wasn't by showing the highlights of comebacks from Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers but by providing 20 minutes of discussion — thoughtful discussion — about the extraordinary events of the day. No touchdown, no tackle was more important.

The reason to stew on and chew over the protests by scores of players at nearly every stadium that hosted a football game Sunday, though, must quickly move past who did what and why. It's September. There will be games next Sunday and the Sunday after, seemingly ad infinitum. The question has to be: What now?

In times like these, we should be able to look to our president to set the tone for informed, nuanced discourse. President Trump, you started this. Your thoughts?

"Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their national anthem or their Country," Trump tweeted Sunday evening, near the close of a slate of games that were colored by his vile words from two days earlier. "NFL should change policy!"

He won't lead us forward, not on this one. Trump's suggestion that players — players whom he disrespected — not only give up their freedom of expression but, a step further, abandon freedom of thought is offensive, and that's putting it kindly. A president who pushes a thinly veiled brand of authoritarianism would like the NFL to suppress its workforce in an authoritarian manner.

His instructions, of course, will be dismissed and ignored.

Where, then, to look for direction?

Turns out, right where this all started: to the players. They will dictate what happens next Sunday and the Sunday after. They have been emboldened and empowered, perhaps irreversibly. This group, exploited by a sport that threatens their long-term health and tosses them to the curb without a second thought, now has a measure of control. What a world.

It's worth remembering that all this started with a single player, former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who remains unemployed in football. It's worth remembering that Kaepernick's original protest wasn't political but societal, that it came from a place of honesty and reflection, that it wasn't black and white but nuanced, and that he performed it in a country that has embraced and encouraged — indeed, is defined by — a diversity in thought. That we need reminding of those fundamentals is silly and sad, but here we are.

Kaepernick aside, it's also worth listening to the players Sunday, because they are directing us forward. It's extraordinary that, after their violent encounters in competition that almost certainly hampered their future physical and cognitive abilities, they were asked not just about whether they should have gone for it on fourth down or how they made this catch or that tackle, but also about their thoughts on their own president's assault on their basic American right to peacefully express their opinion.

"I'm talking about the comments that were made by the president, targeting the NFL, targeting the quality and character of guys in this league for that very protest," Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith told reporters after the Chiefs game, zeroing in, lest he be misunderstood. "I found that very alarming. It's the same guy who wouldn't condemn violent neo-Nazis. And he's condemning guys taking a knee during the anthem."

And from Denver linebacker Von Miller, a Super Bowl MVP: "We felt like President Trump's speech was an assault on our most cherished right: freedom of speech."

And from Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, a 16-year NFL player: "This wasn't about disrespecting the military, disrespecting the police, first responders — none of that. It was about me making a decision as a man on my two feet."

There's not a more diverse locker room environment in American professional sports than that of the NFL, with cornfed farm boys mixing with inner-city toughs as teammates, if not soul mates. What this whole mess has highlighted is that those groups can think and consider and discuss, that they can simultaneously be different but together.

"We will not be divided by this," said Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin, whose team — save for tackle Alejandro Villanueva, an Army veteran — remained in the locker room for the anthem in Chicago. "We've got a group of men in there that come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, races, creed, ethnicities and religions — and so forth. That's football. That's a lot of team sports. But because of our position, we get dragged into [cow feces], to be quite honest with you."

The league, as a whole, has been dragged into cow feces, and that's by the president himself. But what we have discovered, as a result of that unlikely and unfortunate circumstance, is that NFL locker rooms don't consist of 53 meatheads ready only to bash skulls, collect their checks and then make it rain at the club. Don't paint too broadly in any of this, of course, but what we're discovering is that players will be exposed — not as frauds or criminals or miscreants, but as informed thinkers who carefully considered whether they knelt or sat or stood, and what it means to do any of it. They won't be taken lightly or dismissed by anyone — the president included — as sons of bitches.

Moreover, beyond the two minutes of the anthem and before Trump blasted those who dare defy him, there is the work they are doing away from the field. It's not all of them, and it doesn't mean there aren't bad apples, but it's significant. Last week, Philadelphia defensive back Malcolm Jenkins joined teammate Torrey Smith and recently retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin in inviting Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to a tour of Philadelphia, along with Eagles teammates Chris Long and Rodney McLeod. The tour and discussion was designed to further explain why Jenkins has so fervently championed criminal justice reform.

This was before Trump spoke Friday in Alabama. This was outside of Kaepernick's protest. These were players using their pedestal to push an agenda that has nothing to do with football but has everything to do with America.

"This is important work to us as citizens and we wanted to share what we are doing off the field," Jenkins and Boldin said in a statement.

They're not going to stop. Others won't either. And because they're doing what they're doing, and because they have done what they have done, they have backed their bosses — the NFL's 32 owners — into 32 corners. When owner after owner came out with statements condemning Trump's assessment of their workforce, the players became even more empowered in dictating the direction going forward.

(It's worth noting, and then immediately dismissing, the Washington Redskins' statement in all this, the most tepid and flaccid assessment of the situation across the league. Washington's leaders — and we must assume it came from owner Daniel Snyder and/or team president Bruce Allen, though neither had the inclination nor the guts to sign it — didn't mention Trump's insults of their employees directly, instead turning to platitudes about how "football has always served as the great unifier." Please. Even Trump pal Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner, was more direct, saying he was "deeply disappointed" in the president's comments. How hard would that have been? And yet, in Washington of all places, it's too much to ask.)

The owners, in reacting quickly, had to assess the potential backlash from their customers, the fans. Indeed, there were boos at stadiums where dozens of players sat or knelt during the anthem, and it would be unwise and disrespectful to dismiss the thoughts of those who are upset by anthem protests. Still, if the conservative, risk-averse owners risked alienating some of the folks who buy their tickets and their jerseys and their beers, might one of them — one of them — be willing to risk signing Kaepernick himself? We have come this far, right?

As we enter what promises to be another murky week of news — one in which action or inaction will be parsed, in which the league itself will be scrutinized, when we will wait to learn whether the president will embrace or drop this as an issue going forward — at least we know one thing: The NFL players, taken advantage of for so long, have newfound power and newfound direction.

The players will lead us to the next step, not just in whether they stand or sit, but in what issues they choose to highlight, what injustices on which they focus. They won't be unified in thought, nor should they be. But they will be unified in their right to think it. It's amazing that we need reminding — from football players, of all people — of such a simple thing. Don't worry. These players, they're up to the task.

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