Stick to sports.
Keep politics out of football.
Just shut up and play.
That’s been the message fans subtly – and sometimes not-so-subtly – like to tell their favorite athletes.
After all, fans want to be entertained and sports is a primary outlet away from the drudgery of the work week.
It’s also often the one place people of different backgrounds and belief systems can come together to cheer for a favorite team.
But during a very politically, socially and racially divisive time in our country, politics and sports collided head-on last weekend, and football fans were caught in the middle.
President Donald Trump ignited the collision when he criticized players who have protested institutional racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem before a game.
“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!” Trump said, alluding to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling last season in protest of police violence and racial injustice.
Several NFL players took up the cause individually during the 2016 season – some for a game or two, some for most of the season.
And while the public backlash to individual players varied, the issue was mostly quiet on the national stage.
Until last weekend.
Trump’s inflammatory words sparked an outcry on social media from professional players across several sports as well as official statements from 28 of 32 NFL teams in support of their players’ decisions on how to act and what to do during the national anthem.
“Stick to sports” could no longer be admonished.
Instead, it was “Take a knee.”
As Peter King pointed out in MMQB, a protest that had included half-a-dozen or so players the week before suddenly grew to more than 250 players either kneeling or sitting in Week 3.
Protests began early Sunday when players for the Jaguars and Ravens knelt during the anthem as it played for a mostly British crowd, and they continued through Monday Night Football, when the entire Dallas Cowboys organization knelt before the anthem. Three full teams on Sunday – Seattle, Tennessee and Pittsburgh (other than Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva) – boycotted the anthem altogether.
While players, coaches and owners alike undoubtedly have very different views of anthem protests, the league mostly came together in unifying force against the President’s statements.
“So Trump actually was the divider-in-chief this weekend,” King wrote in his column, noting that in a two-plus minute speech, the President of the United States “detoured to cursing at grown men who would choose to protest silently before football games. How would you guess strong and principled men would respond to anyone, never mind the president, calling them SOBs?”
As expected, sports news shows and post-game pressers were dominated by discussion on the protests.
Trump tweeted his anger and tried to turn the narrative to one of patriotism rather than free speech, and athletes took to the podium and Twitter to give their perspective on actions Sunday.
Josh Norman, cornerback for the Washington Redskins, stayed in the locker room long after his team beat the Raiders Sunday night to talk to reporters.
“It’s not about the flag. It’s not,” Norman said. “It’s not about anything like that. It’s not about black and white. It’s about what we are being faced with right now, and that’s being teared down, from in the White House, behind the podium, behind the presidency of the United States of America. That can’t go down. … That’s just disrespectful. That’s appalling, man. If he calls someone an SOB? How you call someone that? That’s their right to do, you know what I mean?”
Brandon Marshall, a linebacker for the Denver Broncos and a college teammate of Colin Kaepernick, was one of the few NFL players last season to protest.
Marshall, who kneeled alone for eight games in the first half of the 2016 season, said his first reaction to the President’s comment Friday was, “Wow, just wow.”
“The fact that he would say that someone should be fired for exercising their first amendment right. It’s part of the Constitution, so why should someone be fired or taken off the field because of it?” Marshall said. “It’s utterly ridiculous.”
The linebacker took a great deal of grief from critics last season over his decision to kneel, even losing two endorsement deals for taking a stand.
Marshall said Sunday that he and his teammates talked specifically about the difference in the president’s references to white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville versus protesting players in the NFL.
“We talked about the fact that while he called the people of Charlottesville, ‘Very fine people,’ but we are ‘sons of bitches,’” Marshall said. “I think that he has to know that what he said is not going to make people go that way, it’s going to provoke people to bail, so to speak.”
Richard Sherman, the outspoken cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, posted a video on Player’s Tribune calling for someone to call out the president for his divisive comments.
“The President’s comments have been divisive for a long time. He condemned players who are protesting the injustice and bigotry and racism that has plagued our great country for so long – and are trying to make a difference -… and they are seen as radicals to him,” Sherman said. “It’s time for someone to address those comments and the way our country is being divided, because it’s wrong.”
Von Miller, outside linebacker and team captain for the Denver Broncos, knelt alongside more than 30 teammates on Sunday – partially in support of Marshall, who was one of the players called out by Trump, and partially in support of free speech.
“Me and my teammates, we felt like President Trump’s speech was an assault on our most cherished right — Freedom of speech,” the edge rusher said, adding he has “huge respect” for the military. “Collectively, we felt like we had to do something for this game, if not any other game, if not in the past, in the future. At this moment in time, we felt like, as a team, we had to do something. We couldn’t just let things go.”
Rookie quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, DeShone Kizer, decided as a team leader, kneeling was the right thing to do.
“Once again this is a tragedy in our country that we have to sit here and have these discussions,” he said. “I know for a fact I’m no son of a b—- and I plan on continuing to [go] forward and doing whatever I can from my position to promote the equality that’s needed in this country.”
Miami Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas knelt with three teammates on Sunday.
“Lots of people don’t have a voice, and I wanted to tell those folks that they’re not alone,” he said. “I used my position to try to empower everybody who seeks equality.”
LeSean McCoy, running back for the Buffalo Bills, said he was basically just protesting the egregious behavior of Trump.
“I can’t stand and support something where our leader of this country is just acting like a jerk, you know, angry and upset about NFL players protesting in a peaceful manner,” McCoy said.
Despite a lot of backlash from fans, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Peter King he was proud of the league and how teams responded.
“I spent a lot of time listening to our players and coaches and owners over the past two days. They really care about our league. I just think we need more understanding,” Goodell said, noting that he talked to teams to find out how their locker rooms were doing, and was not surprised by the protests. “They reflected the frustration, the disappointment, of the players over the divisive rhetoric we heard [from Trump].”
If the players’ reactions to the President’s rhetoric were strong, the overwhelming defense of players by the sports media was stronger – but fan responses may have been the strongest as lines “for” and “against” quickly became drawn.
The protest wasn’t against the military or the flag, after all; it was always about racism.
And last weekend, it was also about standing by teammates – even a league – who had been singled out for criticism by the President for using a powerful platform to speak out against injustice in America.
It was about the fact that as much as they wanted to “just stick to sports,” so many players believed that this one time, they needed to “take a knee.”