Th­ese NFL fans back Kaeper­nick

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Nancy Ar­mour Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

CHICAGO – Any other year, the Chiefs-Cow­boys game would have been play­ing on the three TVs be­hind the bar at The Vel­vet Lounge. Pro­jected on the wall op­po­site the DJ booth, too.

Not this year, though. Not as long as Colin Kaeper­nick re­mains per­sona non grata in the NFL, black­balled for be­gin­ning the player protests that have roiled the league and put it at odds with Pres­i­dent Trump and his hair-trig­ger tweets.

“(Kaeper­nick) just felt it in his heart to take on this fight, and we felt it was im­por­tant to sup­port him,” said Kenny John­son, who won’t show NFL games at ei­ther of the two bars he owns in Chicago’s South Loop, The Vel­vet Lounge and The Bureau Bar, so long as Kaeper­nick re­mains un­signed.

Much has been made of the fans who have tuned out the NFL — or threat­ened to — be­cause of the protests dur­ing the na­tional an­them. They’ve been vo­cal with their dis­gust and anger, claim­ing drops in TV rat­ings as a sign of their sway.

Fear­ful of alien­at­ing them, some NFL own­ers have done ev­ery­thing but or­der their play­ers to stand. And Jerry Jones might as well have, say­ing any mem­ber of the Dal­las Cow­boys who protests will be benched.

But there’s another group of fans

who are boy­cotting the NFL for an en­tirely dif­fer­ent rea­son. Sup­port­ers of Kaeper­nick and his ef­forts to draw at­ten­tion to racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion, they’re in­censed that the NFL has ban­ished him.

“He’s stand­ing up for (so­cial jus­tice). I’m go­ing to stay right be­hind him,” said Bruce Burns, who has stopped watch­ing the NFL and was spend­ing his Sun­day af­ter­noon at The Vel­vet Lounge in­stead, lis­ten­ing to mu­sic.

The fury of fans such as Burns might not be as ap­par­ent. But in a warn­ing sign to the NFL, it is no less in­tense.

A pe­ti­tion cir­cu­lated be­fore the sea­son be­gan that asked fans to boy­cott the NFL in sup­port of Kaeper­nick got al­most 200,000 sig­na­tures. Black­Out NFL, which ad­vo­cates both a boy­cott of the NFL and for par­tic­i­pants to put the time they would have spent watch­ing games into work­ing with kids, says its cam­paign mes­sage has been viewed more than 7 mil­lion times. A rally out­side NFL head­quar­ters two weeks be­fore the sea­son opener drew sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple.

When John­son saw the rally, he de­cided he wanted — needed — to do some­thing, too. As an African-Amer­i­can man with young sons, Kaeper­nick’s com­plaints about bi­ased polic­ing had res­onated with him.

“I’d been think­ing, what can I do to be sup­port­ive of Colin Kaeper­nick?” John­son said. “I didn’t want to use the NFL, mar­ket the NFL like we tra­di­tion­ally do to make money on Sun­day, Mon­day and Thurs­days. It just took off from there.”

John­son is not an en­ter­tain­ment mogul. The Vel­vet Lounge and Bureau Bar are his only bars, and both are small, neigh­bor­hood busi­nesses lo­cated less than a mile from Sol­dier Field. By boy­cotting the NFL, he fig­ured he’d be tak­ing a fi­nan­cial hit.

But as word of John­son’s de­ci­sion spread, peo­ple be­gan stop­ping by his bars to drop off a cou­ple of bucks or run up a healthy tab. The karaoke party that re­placed Mon­day Night Foot­ball has be­come a big hit. A dreary Sun­day af­ter­noon at The Vel­vet Lounge looked more like a Fri­day night, with a DJ play­ing loud, thump­ing mu­sic while peo­ple min­gled at the bar or crowded around ta­bles with “re­served” signs on them.

John­son also got calls from peo­ple who wanted to book events with him. One of those was Jon Kirby, a Chicago DJ who asked John­son if he and some other DJs could do a show at The Vel­vet Lounge one Sun­day.

Two weeks ago, they held “Knee Deep. An NFL Black­out,” spin­ning records and show­ing DVDs from the Chicago Bulls’ cham­pi­onship runs. They also raised money for two Chicago char­i­ties that Kaeper­nick do­nated to as part of his $1 mil­lion give­away.

“We wanted to be in­volved. We wanted to be able to do some­thing and have it be part of that larger move­ment,” Kirby said.

“(Sports) wasn’t the world we’re in, but we felt we wanted to lend our voice.”

Kirby is white and finds it trou­bling that the protests and the re­ac­tions to them are of­ten por­trayed along racial lines.

The is­sues that sparked the player protests should be of con­cern to all Amer­i­cans, he said.

“We have more in com­mon than we have dif­fer­ences,” Kirby said. “That’s what th­ese protests do: Bring to­gether peo­ple who feel help­less.

“This is im­por­tant for ev­ery­body. Be­ing neu­tral is kind of dan­ger­ous. We wanted to say, ‘What you’re do­ing is not in vain.’ ”

John­son said he’ll end his boy­cott when some­one signs Kaeper­nick. Un­til then, he’ll con­tinue tun­ing out the NFL. And he won’t be alone. There’s no ques­tion that fans are an­gry at the NFL. Don’t as­sume it’s all for the same rea­son.

TROY WAYRYNEN/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Sup­port­ers of Colin Kaeper­nick and his ef­forts to draw at­ten­tion to racism are in­censed that NFL teams have shunned him.

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