Di­vi­sive is­sue irk­ing own­ers, play­ers, fans, politi­cians

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nicki Jhab­vala

On Sept. 1, 2016, San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick heeded the ad­vice of for­mer Army Green Beret and Seahawks longsnap­per Nate Boyer and changed his ap­proach. In­stead of sit­ting dur­ing the na­tional an­them, as he had for three pre­sea­son games to protest the op­pres­sion of African-Amer­i­cans and mi­nori­ties, Kaeper­nick took a knee.

The ac­tion, while still both­er­some to Boyer, was a com­pro­mise. But in the 400-plus days since Kaeper­nick kneeled on the side­line of Qual­comm Sta­dium, the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about protests has spi­raled into a di­vi­sive and po­lit­i­cal de­bate. When NFL own­ers and play­ers con­vene next week at the league’s fall meet­ings, a de­ci­sion could be made to re­quire play­ers to stand for the na­tional an­them, adding a new and even more ten­u­ous wrin­kle to a con­tro­versy that has cre­ated con­fu­sion and in­cited strong, and var­ied, re­ac­tions.

Buc­ca­neers de­fen­sive tackle Gerald McCoy has said there would be “an up­roar” if own­ers man­dated play­ers stand.

“Be­cause you’re ba­si­cally tak­ing away a con­sti­tu­tional right to free­dom of speech,” he told re­porters. “If guys wanna have a, I guess you would call it a peace­ful protest, I don’t think it’s right to take that away.”

But Bron­cos cor­ner­back Aqib Talib, who kneeled dur­ing the team’s mass protest in Buf­falo, said he would be un­af­fected.

“I don’t feel like tak­ing a knee and all that, it doesn’t re­ally solve a prob­lem in my eyes,” he said. “There def­i­nitely is a prob­lem out there, but tak­ing a knee and all that — I stand for the peo­ple who go to war for us. (Pres­i­dent Don­ald) Trump may make us go to war again, and then those guys are go­ing to go to war for us again. So that’s why I’m stand­ing. I ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery­thing those guys do.”

In re­cent days, con­trol of the de­bate has seem­ingly be­come a tug of war between the own­ers, the play­ers, the league, the fans, even politi­cians. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, in what ap­peared to be a staged protest of his own, walked out of the Colts’ game Sun­day af­ter see­ing 49ers play­ers kneel dur­ing the an­them. Cow­boys owner Jerry Jones on Sun­day said if any of his play­ers do not stand for the an­them, they will not play.

And on Tues­day, Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell is­sued a memo to all teams that said, “Ev­ery­one should stand for the na­tional an-

them,” a di­rec­tive that drew praise from Trump, who in­flamed the is­sue weeks ago when he called for the fir­ing of play­ers who “dis­re­spect” the flag.

Kaeper­nick’s orig­i­nal mes­sage and com­pro­mise forged with Boyer have be­come mud­dled, leav­ing many — Bron­cos play­ers in­cluded — won­der­ing what the na­tional di­vi­sion is even about any­more.

Bron­cos tight end Vir­gil Green is, in many ways, a prover­bial bridge to two pri­mary sides of those for and against the protests. His fa­ther served in the mil­i­tary, and Green was a col­lege team­mate of Kaeper­nick and Bran­don Marshall, the Bron­cos’ line­backer who protested for seven games last sea­son.

The Bron­cos’ 2016 Wal­ter Pay­ton Man of the Year for his lead­er­ship on the field and in the com­mu­nity, Green says his con­ver­sa­tions about the an­them and the protests are about un­der­stand­ing. When 32 Bron­cos play­ers knelt be­fore their game at Buf­falo in re­sponse to Trump’s re­marks, Green, wear­ing a white glove, stood with his fist raised in a show of unity.

“With the way I feel we’re be­ing an­tag­o­nized, it’s al­most like our hand is forced,” he said of the pol­i­tics sur­round­ing the is­sue. “When peo­ple say our mil­i­tary fought for us, they didn’t fight for us to stand up to a flag and put our hand over heart. They fight for us to have free­dom and the right to do what some of the guys are do­ing. That’s why they are will­ing to do the things that they do for this coun­try be­cause, sup­pos­edly, we are free.”

But Bron­cos cor­ner­back Chris Har­ris, like Talib, said he wouldn’t think twice about stand­ing.

“I love foot­ball,” he said. “I would do what­ever I can to play foot­ball.”

Green be­lieves many oth­ers will think the same, and that play­ers’ job se­cu­rity, play­ing time and the last­ing ex­am­ple of Kaeper­nick, who re­mains un­em­ployed by the NFL, may take prece­dence.

“You can have your be­liefs,” Green said, “but un­less you’re will­ing to ac­cept the con­se­quences that Colin took, guys aren’t will­ing to lose their jobs when so many peo­ple de­pend on us fi­nan­cially.”

Prior to the Bron­cos’ win against Oakland, the team’s lead­er­ship coun­cil made of more than 20 play­ers de­cided the play­ers would stand in unity go­ing for­ward. The move, while not unan­i­mous, was painted as a step for­ward.

“We’re past that and it was a team de­ci­sion that we all feel good about,” head coach Vance Joseph said. “We’ve moved past that.”

But as the league and its play­ers seek to re­dis­cover the orig­i­nal mes­sage be­hind the protests and a po­ten­tial res­o­lu­tion, many cite the work that is of­ten over­looked.

The evening af­ter the Bron­cos lost in Buf­falo and faced a rash of crit­ics for their protests, Har­ris and a hand­ful of his team­mates who knelt held a fundraiser at a lo­cal steak­house to ben­e­fit Den­ver Chil­dren’s Home.

“I think it’s some­thing peo­ple don’t look at,” Har­ris said. “They don’t see the things we do in the com­mu­nity. I think they kind of ex­pect you to do it.”

The fol­low­ing day, re­ceiver De­mary­ius Thomas, also among the 32 who took a knee in Buf­falo, spent about two hours with ele­men­tary school chil­dren in Den­ver. Prior to the Bron­cos’ game against Oakland, guard Max Gar­cia sup­ported fam­ily in At­lanta who were rais­ing money and goods for those in Puerto Rico who were af­fected by Hur­ri­cane Maria.

Green and Talib spent this past Mon­day evening in the field­house of the Bron­cos’ Dove Val­ley train­ing fa­cil­ity work­ing with nearly 300 chil­dren from lo­cal Boys & Girls Clubs. And out­side line­backer Shane Ray this week an­nounced an up­com­ing fundrais­ing event to ben­e­fit his Ray’s Aware­ness foun­da­tion and its pro­grams to help youth in Den­ver and Kansas City.

“We’ll al­ways have the sit­u­a­tion where peo­ple won’t see us as to­tal peo­ple. Some­times they just see us as foot­ball play­ers,” Ray said. “But they don’t see the im­pact we make in the com­mu­ni­ties. And peo­ple say we’re the most spoiled peo­ple in the coun­try be­cause we’re ath­letes.”

This year, the off-field work of play­ers, as well as the league and teams, has seem­ingly grown amid the de­bate.

“That’s the kind of stuff that needs to hap­pen, where it’s em­brac­ing the other side,” Boyer said. “It’s not just rais­ing your fist or tak­ing a knee and ask­ing some­body else to fix the prob­lem. It’s be­ing a part of those so­lu­tions.”

But the con­tro­ver­sies on the field have of­ten masked the so­lu­tions found off the field. The lat­ter is where Green sees the ul­ti­mate com­pro­mise.

No man­date needed.

“I want us to all come to­gether as a peo­ple,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a Chris­tian man or if you’re a Mus­lim, I’m go­ing to treat you as a man. I don’t care if you’re ho­mo­sex­ual, I’m go­ing to treat you as a per­son. I don’t care about your be­liefs or how you live your life. As long as you show re­spect to me, I’m go­ing to re­spect you. That’s what it all boils down to.”

Justin Ed­monds, Getty Im­ages

Bron­cos play­ers stand dur­ing the na­tional an­them be­fore the Oct. 1 game against the Oakland Raiders.

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