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THE NFL sent a clear message to United States president Donald Trump on Sunday that they will not be divided and defeated in the face of racism and hate.
Countless players took knelt down in protest during the US national anthem, while entire teams chose to observe the anthem from the locker room or the tunnel. But it was the united message from the players of the league before, during and after games that gave a year-long protest a new lease of life.
This is a protest that started last season, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took to his knee during the anthem to highlight racial inequality and discrimination, but has reached new heights thanks to Trump.
After a season of limited protests, a few players joined Kaepernick’s cause but nothing too significiant; the 29-year-old is now out of a job. No team has gone near him since, though he started a movement across the league and players this season took up his mantle in his absence.
The ongoing protests clearly struck a nerve with Trump and, while there had been a few comments regarding Kaepernick prior to the start of the season, the US president decided last Friday at a rally that he was going to start a battle he thought he could win.
“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’,” he said.
The first move had been made and many wondered what the players’ response would be. Few expected it to be this big.
In the “early” kick-off between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens at Wembley Stadium in London, many players, mostly African-American, knelt during the US anthem but then stood for Britain’s.
The telling sight was of Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who stood alongside his players during the anthem and linked arms in a sign of unity.
Khan was one of seven NFL owners who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration festivities. Khan later released a statement explaining his actions.
“It was a privilege to stand on the sidelines with the Jacksonville Jaguars today for the playing of the US national anthem at Wembley Stadium. I met with our team captains prior to the game to express my support for them, all NFL players and the league following the divisive and contentious remarks made by President Trump, and was honoured to be arm in arm with them, their teammates and our coaches during our anthem.
“Our team and the National Football League reflects our nation, with diversity coming in many forms — race, faith, our views and our goals. We have a lot of work to do, and we can do it, but the comments by the president make it harder. That’s why it was important for us, and personally for me, to show the world that even if we may differ at times, we can and should be united in the effort to become better as people and a nation.”
The tone had been set and it reverberated back to the US. As the Star Spangled Banner was sung across the games a few hours later, it was obvious more players had protested against the anthem than in previous weeks.
Some owners also took to the field, standing in solidarity with those they employ. Teams released pictures and statements on Twitter, each one talking about the unity displayed.
It wasn’t just players though. Rico LaVelle, who sung the anthem in Detroit before their game against the Atlanta Falcons, took to his knee on the final word — “brave” — and then raised a fist.
Meghan Linsey, who sang it in Tennessee, was also on one knee. She sang it while both teams, the Titans and and Seattle Seahawks, refused to observe the anthem on the sidelines, instead staying in the locker room.
Those were the most powerful images, or lack of. Instead of 60+ men standing on the side of the field, there was emptiness.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of those teams who stayed in the tunnel. Head coach Mike Tomlin stood on the sideline with a few members of staff. But the Steelers players’ absence was the bigger picture.
What stood out was above Tomlin’s head was the name of the stadium, Soldier Field. It could not have been more fitting.
Trump’s rhetoric has been that these protests are a “total disrespect of everything we stand for.” His supporters see the protests against the anthem as a protest against the flag, the armed forces and the US as a whole.
But those against Trump and his loyal followers pointed out over the weekend that Trump was lenient towards the neonazis in Charlottesville last month and that he saved his hate and vitriol for black, peaceful protesters.
Regardless, in the space of 48 hours, Trump’s battle against protesting NFL players had the opposite effect of what he would desired. It unified a group of men who up until that point had laregly distanced themselves from the protests.
The solidarity was remarkable and even some of Trump’s most public supporters and friends in the sport distanced themselves from him.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president,” adding that there is “nothing more divisive than politics” and said he supported players’ “right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”
The Patriots have been a close friend to Trump. Quarterback Tom Brady was spotted with a “Make America Great Again” hat in the build-up to the presidential elections. Head coach Bill Belicheck wrote a letter to Trump endorsing his presidency.
Yet here was the owner, all but severing ties with his long-term friend.
Trump attempted to shrug off the comments by saying: “He’s a good friend of mine and I want him to do what he wants to do,” but it can’t have helped. Neither did all the comments from players after.
Miami Dolphins tackle Laremy Tunsil said: “You’ve seen the interview, you’ve seen how disrespectful it is for a United States president to call us sons of bitches because we are standing up for our rights. So we wanted to take a knee today. Before that, I wasn’t into taking a knee. I would just stand back on the side and relax, because I knew the whole system is corrupt anyway.
“But for him to come out and say that we are some of sons of bitches, now I will stand up for my rights. You get to a certain point where you just say that’s it, and I got to that certain point. I wanted to represent everybody, so I took a knee.
“Our biggest thing was just staying together as a whole team. That’s what we talked about last night. We all wanted to link arms, but certain individuals wanted to take a knee. And so I decided to take a knee because I wanted to stand up for my rights. A lot of people probably won’t understand where we are coming from, don’t understand how we feel. They’ll judge us, we know that. But I am just standing up for my rights and for what I feel is right.”
While this has become Trump v the NFL, Kenny Vaccaro of the Saints reminded people that this started with Kaepernick and that people “need to see the bigger picture.”
“I was sitting down as the game was about to begin,” said Vaccaro.” I was like, you know what, I’m not getting up. I asked [Rafael] Bush if he was going to get up, and the next thing you know, everybody started joining me. Obviously everybody knows about the president’s comments, and I am just trying to support the movement that Kap started. I’ve always felt like we needed to do something.
“I didn’t want to disrespect anyone. It’s not about the military. Some of my best friends are in the military. After those comments yesterday, I decided to do something. All my teammates started joining me one by one.
“Our team didn’t talk about it. I started getting emotional when it got to the point where the anthem was about to start, and I was like, you know, I’m not going to stand today. I know how it’s viewed for a lot of teams and a lot of owners, but I thought it was bigger than football for that moment until that first whistle.
“I don’t think it is a fight against Trump. I think we need to focus on the real problem. The inequality, the police brutality, that’s the real problem. I think people are taking it as Trump v the league, Trump v the NBA, but it’s not about that. People need to see the bigger picture. Guys don’t really care about Trump. They aren’t sitting because of that. They are sitting from what Kap started, the movement he started and I think people need to realise that it has nothing to do with our military.”
It was fitting then, that the final game on Sunday night was the Oakland Raiders v the Washington Redskins, being played just 10 miles from the White House.
The TV coverage certainly made sure people knew where the game was situated, cutting to the White House before the US anthem was sung. The Raiders wanted to stay in the locker room but were told they couldn’t, so the majority sat for the anthem. Some knelt but very few stood.
It was extremely symbolic. As was what Washington cornerback Josh Norman said after.
“What president?” Norman said. “Not my president. He was chosen, true. But when a president acts like that, what do you say to that? That’s not someone that stands with dignity, pride, respect, honour. Where’s the honour in that? Where’s the dignity in that? Where is anything that’s prideful in doing what you did?
“Words are powerful. They can either unite you, or they can divide you. So what he said united us.”
Trump responded to the entire protest yesterday, using Twitter to say: “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag and national anthem. NFL must respect this.”
But respect has to be earned. And the message from the NFL, and Norman especially, could not have been clearer.
“I’m telling you right now, this man is not welcome in Washington, DC. He’s not. I hope he won’t be around when I see him. He’s not welcome. I can say that to your face. He’s not welcome.”
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