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In wake of Cameron Jefferson's silent anthem protest, Bills coach Sean McDermott says 'the key word here is respect'

Cameron Jefferson knew the time was right to do something.

The Buffalo Bills' reserve offensive tackle looked across the field Thursday night and saw Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins with his fist in the air during the national anthem – a silent demonstration meant to protest racial injustice in America.

Jenkins is black. His teammate, defensive end Chris Long, is white. As the anthem played, Long put his arm around Jenkins.

Watching that, Jefferson silently raised his fist in the air.

"It gave me some courage. Seeing that togetherness on their team between different races, different backgrounds, different people, I feel like that’s all I wanted," Jefferson said Sunday. "I wanted togetherness and to build awareness for that. I feel like there shouldn’t be any separation or division in our country. I feel like because we’re all Americans that we should all be under, basically, one nation."

Sadly, that is not the climate in which we are currently living in, as the recent protests that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., demonstrated.

"It was important to me because I feel like in my spirit and my heart, I had to take a stand for myself," Jefferson explained. "I can't judge another man for not doing it. I can't judge another person for how he does it. I did what's best for me and how I wanted to protest. I did it peacefully and I did it quietly. I didn't want to be a distraction to the team."

On Saturday, Bills coach Sean McDermott met with Jefferson to discuss his protest.

"What I want all of our players to understand is that we are going to support them," McDermott said. "Everyone obviously has their view on things and I think the key word here is respect. We respect Cam’s opinion. We respect and acknowledge what’s going on, and it’s important that we can communicate and a big part of communication is listening and I did a lot of listening yesterday."

Jefferson said McDermott was "supportive" during their meeting.

"He understood and he just wanted to make sure it wasn't a distraction to the team," he said. "Make sure that he was on board, make sure he knows what I'm doing and what I'm about not really trying to be a distraction to anybody, not be a distraction to him because as a head coach, he's the head coach over everybody -- not just one individual."

Jefferson, 25, might not be with the Bills for long. After entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears in 2015, he was released at the end of training camp. In December 2015, he signed to the Denver Broncos' practice squad, and was with the team when it won Super Bowl 50. He was cut last summer by the Broncos, and signed with the Bills in April.

Despite his position on the 90-man roster, McDermott took the time to learn about Jefferson, which the player appreciated.

"It's a good feeling, especially a guy they signed in April," he said. "I'm not a starter. I'm not a top draft pick, but for him to really hear me out and listen to me and sit down with me man to man, eye to eye – it was a great feeling to have that from a head coach."

Jefferson knew he would face backlash for his decision.

"I was definitely conscious of it, but in my life, I have a relationship with God and I feel like God's going to take care of me no matter what," he said.

Predictably, reaction to Jefferson's protest has been mixed on social media.

"Some people are going to be supportive, some people are going to be against it, but I can't worry about that," Jefferson said. "All I can worry about is what I'm doing and what I'm doing right now in this moment. It's good to see people that are supportive, but at the same time we are raising awareness for people who are on the neutral side of things and for people that are on the negative side of things."

Sunday morning, McDermott addressed the entire team.

"I thought it was a healthy meeting and conversation," the coach said. "Again, the key word in all of this is respect. Respect this situation, respect the communication end of things moving forward, and then respect the process of what’s going on in this country and this world."

Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said McDermott's only request, if they do want to stage a protest of their own, is to talk it over with him first.

"I think that's key," Alexander said. "Let the team know because the media's going to want to approach it and ask questions."

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first player to protest racial injustices last season when he took a knee for the national anthem. Other players have followed in Kaepernick's footsteps this year, including Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch and Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett.

Alexander said it's important that players who do decide to protest "can give a reason why."

"I don't want it to be a thing where it just becomes a cool thing to do because you see guys around the league doing it," he said. "Have some reasoning behind it. And then also, No. 2 is, take it a step further and engage your community – whether it's with kids or political figures in your community to create some real change past just starting a conversation. I think it's going to take all of those things if we really want to see some real change in totality throughout our culture and our country today."

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