Justin Pugh was angry. When Colin Kaepernick first sat, then started taking a knee, during the national anthem last season, he was one of the players who expressed disdain on social media and in interviews. With a brother serving in the military, Pugh thought it was a disgrace for a player to show such a lack of respect.
But that was just his immediate reaction. Soon after the initial uproar, he learned what Kaepernick’s true intentions were.
“He’s not trying to disrespect the military,’’ Pugh said Wednesday. “He’s not trying to disrespect the flag or the United States of America. He’s trying to raise questions and start a conversation, and I think that’s something I can get on board with.”
And now that kneeling and locking arms by NFL players has become such a lightning rod, a topic of conversation that goes all the way up to the White House, it’s an about-face Pugh hopes others will follow.
“A lot of times, that’s what we find ourselves doing, listening with the intent to respond (that) I’m going to impose my opinion on you before I have a chance to hear what you have to say,” he said. “It’s a tough time in this world. America is not perfect. We all know that. It’s a conversation that needs to be had. I don’t know the right way to do it. I don’t know the wrong way to do it, but all I know is that guys have the right to say what they want to say. And that’s what makes America so great, and I’m going to stand by my guys in the locker room and be there for my teammates.”
The Giants did lock arms during the anthem Sunday in Philadelphia. Landon Collins, Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison were among the hundreds around the NFL who took a knee.
Asked how it’s been for him since then, Collins used a word Wednesday that few would have reached for when describing the climate in the country. “It’s been peaceful to me,” he said.
He said on Sunday that he was bracing for a backlash, but it never really came. He heard from about 10 people who were angry and wanted him to stand up, he said, but received far more support than he thought he would.
“It made me feel awesome because people understand why we’re doing it,” he said. “We’re not trying to be disrespectful.”
President Trump continued to hammer away at the NFL on Wednesday. “The NFL is in a box, a really bad box,” Trump said at the White House. “In my opinion, the NFL has to change or their business is going to go to hell.”
Collins said he thinks Trump should focus more on issues such as the devastation in Puerto Rico than what NFL players do. “He needs to stick to what he needs to do,” Collins said.
Pugh said the widespread activism last week was traced to Trump’s comments Friday, when he railed against players who kneel. At that time, just a handful were.
“I think once the president came out and said some things, we had to show unity as the NFL,” Pugh said.
Collins said he is not sure what will happen Sunday in Tampa, and that the players would have discussions to decide what they will do during the anthem. Giants co-owner John Mara met with the team Wednesday afternoon to discuss the situation, the atmosphere and the issues swirling through the locker room and the country.
Pugh said he has made up his mind already.
“I want to stand for the flag,” he said. “It’s something I feel very passionately about.”
But he’ll also be standing behind those who don’t.
“I think a lot of people outside of this (locker room), when they’re sitting at home on their couch, they don’t experience some of the struggles these guys go through, and we have to be able to make a conversation,” Pugh said.
“Every guy in here has an opinion. That’s what makes America great. You have your First Amendment right, freedom of speech, and I’m all for guys exercising that right. To be there to support my brothers is something that I’m always going to do. If you come at us for football-related things or off-the-field things, I’m going to stick together with these guys. There’s a line that can be drawn in the sand, but I feel like there’s a conversation that needs to be had, and we’re going to have it.”