It was a simple gesture: one football player standing next to his teammate and putting his arm around the other’s shoulder.
But in the time it took Eagles defensive end Chris Long to show his support for Malcolm Jenkins, who stood with his right fist aloft during the playing of the national anthem at Thursday night’s Eagles-Bills preseason game, the symbolism was undeniably powerful and meaningful.
Long is white. Jenkins is black. And when Long put his arm around his teammate’s shoulder, the two sent a powerful message to a nation that rarely has seemed so divided.
Less than a week after riots shook Long’s native Charlottesville, Virginia, and resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a demonstrator protesting a rally of white supremacists marching through the city, Long joined Jenkins in a show of support.
“It’s just telling Malcolm, ‘I am here for you,’ and I think it’s a good time for people who look like me to be here for people fighting for equality,” Long told reporters after the game. “I’ve said before that I’ll never kneel for an anthem, because the flag means something different for everybody in this country. But I support my peers, and if you don’t see why you need allies for people that are fighting for equality right now, I don’t think you’ll ever see it. So my thing is, Malcolm is a leader, and I’m here to show support as a white athlete.”
Jenkins has raised his right fist during the anthem since last season, shortly after then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem, sitting at first and then kneeling on the sideline. And while Jenkins hasn’t experienced the intense criticism that Kaepernick faced — criticism that many people around the league are convinced is the reason Kaepernick has yet to sign with another team — he is one of the few players willing to continue to take a public stand in bringing attention to racial inequality in America.
Jenkins is not alone, now that Long has stood by his side. And two other high-profile players have decided to use the anthem as a means of bringing attention to social issues. Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch sat for the anthem in the first preseason game, although the mercurial running back has declined to say why, which reduces the value of any point he might be trying to make. But Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett has been very outspoken about his decision to sit for the anthem before last week’s preseason game.
“Charlottesville was the tipping point for me,” Bennett said in an interview on CNN. “To see so much hate . . . There was no way I could go out there and hide behind the game.”
Bennett also drew support from a white teammate. Before Friday night’s game in Seattle, Seahawks center Justin Britt stood next to Bennett and put a hand on his shoulder as Bennett sat on the Seahawks’ bench during the anthem.
National anthem protests turned into a highly polarizing situation last season, and many fans grew irate at seeing Kaepernick and a few other players either sit or kneel during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ It was cited as one of several reasons for a reduction in television ratings last season, and it wasn’t unusual to hear fans say they had sworn off the game because of the protests.
Like it or not, those demonstrations aren’t likely to go away. And the fact that Long became the first white player to add his support makes you believe the issue will continue to resonate among players.
Even commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged that political and social activism in the NFL will continue, even if he doesn’t personally like it.
“It’s one of those things where we have to understand that there are people who have different viewpoints,” Goodell said last week at a forum for Cardinals season-ticket holders. “The national anthem is a special moment for me. It’s a point of pride. That is a really important moment, but we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights, and we want to respect those.”
Sports and politics frequently have intersected over the years, so the anthem protests shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum.
Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood with one black-gloved fist raised during a medal ceremony in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, for instance. And it should be noted that the silver medalist in the 200-meter race, Australian Peter Norman, who was white, joined with Smith and Carlos by wearing a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a gesture for which he was publicly shunned for the rest of his life in Australia. Treated as a pariah, he was not allowed by his country to run in the Olympics again.
According to a CNN story, Smith and Carlos already had decided to make a statement on the podium by wearing black gloves, but Carlos left his at the Olympic Village. It was Norman who suggested that they wear one each on alternate hands.
Norman also asked a member of the U.S. rowing team for his Olympic Project for Human Rights badge so he could show solidarity. “He came up to me and said, ‘Have you got one of those buttons, mate,’ ’’ U.S. rower Paul Hoffman said in the CNN story. “If a white Australian is going to ask me for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, then by God he would have one. I only had one, which was mine, so I took it off and gave it to him.”
Postscript: When Norman died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral and eulogized him in moving fashion.
Considering the current political climate, there is reason to believe that at least some players will be moved toward expressing their feelings publicly. There also is reason to believe that many fans who prefer to see the NFL as entertainment and a diversion from world events will react negatively to any such activism, which is as much their right as it is the players’ right to speak up about what they perceive to be social injustice.
Long believes this goes beyond politics, something that hit home as he watched his city rocked by violence.
“Everybody is trying to turn this political,” he said. “This isn’t a political issue. This is right or wrong. I believe you’re on one side or the other. For me, being from Charlottesville, no one wants to see you sit idly by and watch that stuff happen and not say anything.”