SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ NFL insider Lindsay H. Jones explains why NFL ratings were up in Week 3 despite President Trump’s open criticism of players kneeling for the national anthem.
USA TODAY Sports
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As Week 4 of the NFL is set to begin on Thursday night in Green Bay, Wis., the question in locker rooms on Wednesday was simple: What next?
More than 200 players took a knee or locked arms during the national anthem before games on Sunday and Monday, a united front in response to comments from President Trump that attacked individual players and the game at large.
As Trump has continued to speak out against players taking a knee during the national anthem and overall well-being of the NFL, tweeting each day this week on the topic, the message outside of the 32 teams has not been as unified. Fans, public employees and politicians have taken sides, many joining Trump in attacking the league, and in some cases using profane and racist language.
That has put players, coaches and owners in a difficult spot. How long should the displays continue, and in what form?
“It was a popular thing last Sunday. But there’s still an opportunity,” Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said Wednesday. “We have to be a voice for others that don’t have the voice we have.”
Yet true unity, especially in message, seems hard to find.
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When former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the first player to protest during the anthem in August 2016, he did so with the intent of using his platform to raise awareness about police brutality and other social injustices. Other players, such as 49ers teammate Eric Reid, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall and Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, joined him in either kneeling or raising a fist during the anthem.
Now some of those players are concerned that Trump’s comments, including those made on Wednesday when he said the NFL business would “go to hell” if the league didn’t change its rules regarding protests during the anthem, have obscured the meaning of the protests.
“We can’t get lost in what Trump’s said,” Marshall told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “We have to try to change the narrative back to what the original message was about.”
“I kind of don’t want President Trump to kind of hijack the narrative of what the protest started with and what it’s ultimately about,” Indianapolis Colts safety Darius Butler said.
The best way to reclaim that narrative, players around the league said this week, is to continue talking about the social issues and backing up their words with action, whether or not they continue to protest.
Marshall, who knelt before eight games last year, said he had not yet decided what he’ll do this Sunday. The Broncos are unlikely to have a team-wide action.
“You’ll never have everybody that would kneel. Everybody can stand (but) that means nothing,” Marshall said. “In my opinion, that means nothing. If we all stand and lock arms, I understand that’s showing unity, but I mean, I just don’t see the point in it, me personally.”
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Thursday in Green Bay, however, arms could be locked all around the stadium. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has asked that fans join the team in that gesture, saying the team wants to “show people that we can be connected and we can grow together.”
In Seattle, where the Seahawks decided as a team to remain in the locker room during the anthem last week, cornerback Richard Sherman said his teammates still needed to discuss their future plans. But Sherman said last week’s major statement was in direct response to Trump, and noted that each week moving forward may be different.
At least half of the Raiders’ roster chose to sit during the national anthem before their Sunday Night Football game at Washington in one of the most emphatic protests during Week 3. Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack, who was among those who sat, said the Raiders’ protest was “probably a one-time thing.”
“We wanted to make our point, and it’s done now. At the same time, we want to be more effective in the community at using our voices and doing positive things throughout the community. That should be the way we move forward from it,” Mack, who spent several hours on Monday visiting a children’s hospital in Oakland with his defensive line teammates, said.
While the message has been muddled externally, or turned into a debate about respect for flag or the military, Trump’s comments and subsequent protests have inspired conversations within NFL locker rooms like never before.
New York Giants offensive lineman Justin Pugh, who is white, said his opinion on the protests have changed dramatically from when Kaepernick first chose to take a knee. Pugh said he’s talked with teammates about their personal experiences and he will support any teammates that choose to continue a protest. Three Giants players, safety Landon Collins, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and defensive end Olivier Vernon, kneeled last week.
“I don’t know the right way to do it, I don’t know the wrong way to do it,” Pugh said. “I just know that guys have a right to say what they want to say. That’s what makes America so great and I’m going to stand by my guys in the locker room and my teammates.”
Contributing: Bergen (N.J.) Record, Indianapolis Star, Green Bay Press-Gazette, all part of the USA TODAY Network.
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.
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