After one of the most emotional and consequential weeks in NFL history, a gut-wrenching experience that touched a nerve no matter which side of the national anthem debate you were on, now the question is: What comes next?
Triggered by President Donald Trump’s rough-language remarks that the NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired, there was an unprecedented show of emotion among NFL players. Some teams locked arms, some players knelt and some stayed in the clubhouse.
With many players and team owners under criticism from some fans for the perception that they are not showing proper respect to the armed forces, there may be fewer protests during the anthem compared with last week, when more than 200 players knelt during the song.
Broncos players announced Thursday that they will all stand for the anthem before Sunday’s game against the Raiders in Denver. This just a week after 32 Broncos — by far the most of any team in the NFL — took a knee during the anthem.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees will protest on an international stage this weekend, saying Friday on Twitter that he will join with his teammates in taking a knee before the anthem before Sunday’s game against the Dolphins in London.
The Jaguars tweeted Saturday that they plan to kneel in prayer, then stand for the anthem Sunday.
The Cowboys, who knelt before standing for the anthem Monday night, are expected to stand for the anthem Sunday.
The Steelers, who didn’t appear for the anthem before last week’s game in Chicago, are expected to be on the sideline during the anthem for Sunday’s game in Baltimore.
Any demonstrations will be “organic and driven from the locker room,” NFL communications director Joe Lockhart said Friday. “You will see different kinds of expressions.”
More than a year after then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick initially sat for and then took a knee during the anthem as a way to draw attention to racial injustice in America, Trump’s vitriolic criticism stoked passions never before seen in the sports world. Never has a sitting president been so harsh in his attack on players expressing their beliefs; and never has there been such a collective reaction as the one last week, when almost every team did something to push back against Trump’s scornful remarks.
There have been numerous discussions among players and owners throughout the week, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell summoned several influential owners — including Giants president John Mara, Steelers president Art Rooney II and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross — as well as players for a two-hour meeting Tuesday in New York. Lockhart said there has been “incredibly constructive and fulsome dialogue” that has “brought our clubs closer together.”
But now the question is: Where do they go from here?
Lockhart said earlier in the week that he expected the league to go from “protest to progress. That’s the foundational goal of this.”
Toward that end, you may now see players dial back the demonstrations that have angered a significant cross-section of fans, and at the same time have elicited sympathy from other fans who have no issue with the players raising important societal issues.
“There’s no easy answer here,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who came up with the idea of taking a knee as a show of solidarity with his players, while still standing for the anthem Monday night, during a radio interview Friday in Dallas. “The interpretation of what you’re doing when we draw that line is really controversial. What are you saying? A lot of times you can’t clearly articulate what you’re saying.”
Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas, a team captain who met with Goodell and the owners Tuesday, wondered aloud Thursday whether the message of the protests was being drowned out.
“We’re doing so many great things,” he said. “[Eagles defensive end] Chris Long donating his first six game checks [for scholarships] to Charlottesville, like that needs to be in the headlines, not what Trump says, not the kneeling. As long as we’re here on this Earth as human beings, I think we should be able to try and make a difference, and I think that’s what a lot of guys are trying to do when they kneel.”
But Casillas admits risking the league’s popularity — which impacts the financial bottom line for owners and players alike — may ultimately factor into protests during the anthem being greatly reduced.
“We have nothing but the most utmost respect for not only the flag, but what it represents,” he said. “The military and the people that serve, the soldiers that we lost and fought for our freedom. So it’s been totally misconstrued and me personally, I don’t think kneeling is conducive for us as players, for the league because it’s been totally misconstrued.
“We’re at a trying time right now, with all the racial situations — the kneeling, the [perception of] disrespecting of the flag, and also fans pulling away from the greatest professional sports league in the country,” he said. “And that’s being considered, [because] it’s being felt by owners and players. It’s something that I think we have to address. Last weekend was a tough weekend.”
It was a weekend the likes of which we’ve never seen before, the result of a series of comments from a sitting president the likes of which we’ve never heard. But the owners and the players made their point with an extraordinary show of unity.
Judging from the conversations and contemplation among players, owners and league executives this week, the tone won’t be nearly as loud. Detente may have arrived, with football once again taking center stage.