Football players spend a lot of time in meetings that are typically mundane. This week Giants defensive captain Jonathan Casillas attended two that were extraordinary.
The first occurred Tuesday night, when he and team co-owner John Mara joined approximately 25 other NFL owners, players and executives — including commissioner Roger Goodell — at league headquarters in Manhattan to discuss what happened this past weekend during the national anthems that were played before the 16 games. The second was at the Giants’ facility Wednesday evening, Casillas and other leaders from the locker room met with Mara to talk about the same topic.
The result of those meetings, Casillas said, is that nothing has been decided by anyone moving forward.
“Basically John told us (Wednesday) — and I was sitting next to him in the Tuesday meeting, so I understood where he was coming from — he basically said he can’t ask us to do anything, really,” Casillas said. “He just requests that we stand. If he had a request, that would be a request of his. But he also said that if anyone here or anyone in the locker room feels that they want to kneel or if they have to kneel, he’ll be supportive of anyone who decides to do that.
“Honestly, as a player in this league, with everything that’s going on, you can’t really ask for more than that.”
Even Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who had been vocal in his desire to see Giants players stand for the anthem last year, seemed to understand where the players are coming from this year.
“This is America, this is the land of the free because of the brave,” Sullivan said. “All citizens of this country have the freedom of speech, we all have freedom of expression. I have respect for everyone’s right to exercise that freedom.”
But Casillas also came away from those meetings wondering just how effective the kneeling is when the message behind the act is being garbled and contorted. Are the players who were so unified last week when they locked arms and more than 200 across went to the turf in protest, now going to take a pass on taking a knee? How effective can a symbolic gesture be when those who oppose its intended meaning get to define it?
“Maybe we have to figure something else out, another way to get across the reason the protests have been happening from the beginning, which is because of social injustices that have been happening to minorities since the beginning of time,” Casillas said. “That point doesn’t really get across when you have a conversation. The kneeling has gotten blown out of proportion. The talks I’ve had, it’s like maybe we shouldn’t focus on the flag and the kneeling, but focus on what this (NFL) shield represents.”
That sentiment seems to be growing. The Broncos, who had 32 players kneel last weekend, issued a statement Thursday saying they would be standing this week.
“We’re a team and we stand together — no matter how diverse some comments and issues can be, nothing should ever get in the way of that,” the statement said. “Starting Sunday, we’ll be standing together.”
Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said he was happy to see so many statements and acts of support from owners last weekend.
“I think the biggest thing is as players we have to keep in the forefront what we want to get (awareness for), the inequality, the injustice,” he said. “I think that’s what’s important. I think we’ve got to make sure this whole thing doesn’t turn into the NFL vs. Donald Trump. We have an agenda of what we think can be done better. We’re trying to use our platform. We have to stick to that.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the Tuesday gathering was one of the many conversations this week within the NFL.
“The commissioner believed with all the owners here for committee meetings it was important to bring in some players and hear directly from them,” McCarthy said in responding to an email from The Associated Press. “While the conversations will remain private, they were very informative and instructive.”
Whether the Giants players who did kneel Sunday in Philadelphia will do so in Tampa this week remains to be seen. As of Thursday, the three who joined the protest — Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins and Damon Harrison — had not made up their minds. “I have no idea at this moment,” Vernon said. “Just got to wait until Sunday.”
Vernon, though, agreed with Casillas (who stood for the anthem) that the impetus behind kneeling is being distorted and therefore loses its efficacy.
“I think there was a message, but I think people misconstrued what the message was,” Vernon said. “I think that was probably the biggest thing what went on these past few days and past few weeks . . .
“I think people took it as a sign of disrespect when really, it’s far from disrespect. There’s rules and regulations and there are things as a citizen that you have a right to do and it’s not about disrespecting anybody. I feel like people really have to do their research before they speak on certain things that they call and deem disrespectful.”
Casillas said he would like to see more focus on players who are proactive rather than protesting. He pointed to Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins’ work in his community, Chris Long’s donation of six game checks to Charlottesville, Virginia, and even what Colin Kaepernick has done since his exile from the NFL.
He also said the meetings with owners were critical to enacting change and not just symbolizing it.
“We have the owners on our side, they have many contacts and people that they can talk to that we can’t, so we should be able to use them to our advantage and hopefully we can make change,” Casillas said. “As long as we’re here on this Earth as human beings, I think we should be able to try to make a difference. I think that’s what a lot of guys are trying to do when they kneel.
“It’s just getting lost and misconstrued.”