The Jets linked arms before their game on Sunday, then linked words afterward, repeatedly invoking an act of “unity” that extended to every corner of the locker room and front office – including the most powerful office of all.
The fact that acting CEO Chris Johnson asked to join in during the national anthem was a particularly significant act given that his brother, Woody, works for Donald Trump as the United States’ ambassador to the United Kingdom.
“It gave us the affirmation of saying we’re all in this together,” receiver Jermaine Kearse said.
It was one small piece of an extraordinary mosaic that played out in and around the NFL over the weekend.
The league has struggled in dealing with social issues and/or player relations, and here we had a widespread, level-headed show of unity in the wake of inflammatory words from the former owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals.
At a rally in Alabama on Friday, he said (among other things), “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a [expletive] off the field right now? Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
Commissioner Roger Goodell weighed in with a pointed statement, followed by a parade of owners of assorted political leanings, including supporters of Trump.
Even as he continued tweeting Sunday about players who kneel during the national anthem, some took a knee anyway, while the Jets decided to stand as a group and the Steelers opted not to come out for the anthem at all. The Titans and Seahawks — who played in Tennessee — also didn’t come out for the anthem.
(Actually, Trump endorsed the Jets’ anthem approach, writing, “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”)
We all are accustomed by now to everything being fodder for divisive political rhetoric, but we are not used to the NFL being a collective voice of reason. That usually is the NBA’s job!
We also are not used to the NFL dividing us. Until the past year or so, it arguably was the single biggest thing our fractured culture had in common, something that smoothed over every demographic fault line.
Now it has become yet another screwdriver being used to tear us apart. What the NFL did this weekend will not reverse that, but perhaps it will restore some sanity, or at least perspective.
With few exceptions, players, coaches and owners were respectful in their dissent, unlike the person with whom they were dissenting.
The Jets locker room was full of young men calmly preaching peace and understanding.
“We want to send a message to the world,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “That’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take everybody, the top and bottom, no matter what religion or race or creed or sexuality. It’s going to take everybody working together for a common goal, and that’s peace and blessings.”
Davis added, “Whatever problems we face, we have to face them together. That’s the name of our country: It’s the United States of America.”
Giants ownership was among the first to issue a denunciation of Trump’s words, and three Giants chose to kneel for the anthem in Philadelphia rather than merely stand and link arms.
But many eyes were on the Jets because of Woody Johnson’s strong support for Trump. During Sunday’s game the team issued a tepid statement but after it ESPN quoted Chris Johnson saying he was “disappointed” in Trump’s remarks.
Said Kearse, “I think things are going in the right direction and I look at his comments as just a distraction, trying to distract where we’re headed as a country.”
For once, most of the NFL got itself headed in the same direction.