Players from eight NFL teams – one quarter of the league – aligned themselves with embattled San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick before last weekend’s games by protesting against racial oppression and inequality during the national anthem.
A few players joined Kaepernick by taking a knee. Others raised fists in the air. That group included the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, who recently began an NFL group text message on the issue, former Bill Ron Brooks and one-time UB standout Steven Means.
The Rams’ Robert Quinn stood for the anthem in deference to coach Jeff Fisher, but raised his fist to show Kaepernick he has support among players and to exercise his “right of freedom.”
More players are bound to exercise that right before this week’s games after Keith Scott, an African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday night, sparking violent protests in that city.
Last Friday, an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, had been shot dead by a police officer in Tulsa, Okla., setting off protests after a video of the shooting surfaced Monday.
The protest made its way to City Hall on Tuesday, when Buffalo councilman Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. raised his fist during the Pledge of Allegiance before a meeting. Wingo, who represents the Masten District, privately pledged allegiance to God.
The question is whether any players from the city’s football team will join him Sunday when the 0-2 Bills host the Cardinals at New Era Field.
“I think by the end of the season, every team will be doing it,” said Bills defensive tackle Corbin Bryant. “There has to be a point man we can talk to and get the conversation started, because the injustice is just ridiculous.”
The NFL Players Association should make a stand on the issue. But this is a union that hasn’t stood up to the NFL on guaranteed contracts or medical marijuana, or on behalf of the aging veterans. As Bryant said, the union seems content to sit back and watch.
Kaepernick has been the point man, igniting a national debate on protest, patriotism and police brutality by sitting for the national anthem during a preseason game. He knelt during the anthem for the season opener, while many sympathetic NFL players withheld their support to respect the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
But other players, emboldened by the rising support around Kaepernick, have joined the movement. Even if they believe you should stand for the anthem, they feel Kaepernick has shone a light on issues that need to be addressed in a divided nation.
Bills coach Rex Ryan said no players have approached him about a possible protest. He said players have a platform to discuss social issues, but he said there’s a better way than during the anthem.
Defensive end Jerry Hughes said he’s unaware if any teammates intend to protest. “Naah,” he said. “God’s honest truth, we’re trying to win a game. So all of our talk is about the Cardinals. We want to win a football game to get this losing taste out of our mouth.”
Hughes supports Kaepernick, however. “He’s exercising his First Amendment right to the highest degree,” he said. “Some people like it, some don’t. I understand it. He’s bringing awareness to a huge issue we have in our country and he’s getting a lot of people to talk about it. So it’s cool.”
My dear departed colleague, Allen Wilson, used to tell me that every young African-American knows what it’s like to be stopped for “driving while black.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Hughes said. “I got pulled over three weeks ago in Orchard Park. We were coming from Brandon Spikes’ birthday dinner. The cop told me my tint was too dark. He never tested the tint, but decided to give me a Breathalyzer instead, which I thought was kind of odd. He made me roll down the rear window and woke up my 7-month-old son.
“It happens,” said Hughes, who wasn’t charged. “I’ve been taught about it, because my family is from the South and we’re kind of used to it. You learn it from a young age.”
Linebacker Preston Brown, who grew up in Cincinnati, said his parents gave him the talk.
“They told me to say ‘Yes, sir, no sir, no m’am,’ when you’re around them. Don’t do anything fast, keep your hands up and play it safe, because you never know what’ll happen.”
The killing of African-American males spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and spilled into the sporting arena. LeBron James and other NBA players took a stand. But Kaepernick’s method, which involved not standing for the anthem, crossed a line for many Americans, who saw it as an unpatriotic insult to the military. Kaepernick said this week that he has received death threats.
“That’s beyond ridiculous,” said Bryant, a native of Chicago. “Those are the people who aren’t looking at the facts. If you look at the facts of what’s been going on with the police and the black and minority community, then the proof is in the pudding.
“Of course, we’re going to respect the military. They’re protecting our freedom. The problem is the injustice against black people in America – black people, Muslims, minorities in general.”
I happen to agree. My grandfather was a career Navy man and my father served. But I don’t believe the flag is exclusively a symbol of the armed services. It stands for much more than that, including our basic rights of free speech and dissent. Is it necessary to recognize the military at every single sports event in this country?
Jared Odrick, a defensive end for the Jaguars, wrote a terrific column on the Kaepernick flap in last week’s Sports Illustrated. Odrick quoted the great black author James Baldwin, who wrote about American black children realizing at an early age that the flag they saluted didn’t show allegiance to them.
“Exercising a First Amendment right isn’t an affront to our military,” Odrick wrote. “The notion that the flag is sacred and untouchable – or that it has pledged the same allegiance to everyone – is one of the great hypocrisies of our times.”
Pro athletes are criticized, justifiably, for failing to speak out on social issues. But as Odrick points out, they’re coached to give vanilla comments to the media and often vilified when they dare utter anything controversial.
What the protesting players are saying is that, half a century after the civil rights movement, James Baldwin’s words still ring true. As young black men continue to get gunned down by law enforcement, the flag and the anthem seem less like symbols of freedom than reminders of how far we have to go.
Kyle Williams, who plays alongside Bryant on the defensive line, understands that the black protesters are standing up for their convictions. Williams is white, a captain, and he’ll assure you that, in a nation divided, the locker room bond remains precious.
“I’ve been playing 11 years,” he said. “I have five kids. I’m from the country. You get a 21-year-old rookie in here, a DB that may be from California or Miami. We literally have nothing in common, nothing to bring us together but football. All the differences fall by the wayside, whether it’s color, personal or political beliefs. You have a common goal.
“If the outside world was a little bit more like locker rooms, we’d all be a little better off.”