PLAYERS SPLIT ON TAKING STAND FOR THE ANTHEM
Divisive issue irking owners, players, fans, politicians
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.”
Broncos players stand during the national anthem before the Oct. 1 game against the Oakland Raiders.