Eric Wood stood behind the podium, somewhat awkward, clearly uncomfortable.
The Bills veteran center didn’t want to be there, standing in front of us, all alone, fielding questions on behalf of himself, and more importantly, his entire locker room.
Here we are — players and media partaking in an intricate and uncomfortable dance, clumsily toeing the line on topics that once were deemed off-limits in a football locker room and within the confines of game-week preparation.
A day after the Bills’ most impressive win of the season, Wood, defensive end Jerry Hughes and defensive tackle Kyle Williams weren’t peppered by questions about their unexpected victory over the Denver Broncos. Instead, they were forced to ponder the fractured state of the country, the hateful rhetoric of President Trump and their individual feelings as athletes, as Americans, and as teammates. They, and their head coach Sean McDermott, also were confronted by the firestorm ignited by the face of their franchise, Jim Kelly, who took to social media and radio airwaves to vent about his general frustration with Sunday's protests around the NFL and his lack of respect for Bills star running back LeSean McCoy in particular.
"The president is polarizing," Wood said Monday. "He used that language at a rally, I don’t know if it was calculated or not. He said it, and guys took strong offense to it. As a player that’s not as affected by the issues and had never thought about taking a knee and I wouldn’t, it made me even feel a certain type of way. He’s attacking the NFL community."
Now, the question facing the Bills is: Where do they go from here?
As much as McDermott would like to keep everyone's focus (including the media’s) strictly on football, that no longer is an option. Not now. Not after the president obliterated the line between sports and politics by declaring open season on the NFL and players who defy his wishes to stand for the anthem.
McDermott’s culture change at One Bills Drive is rooted in the importance of love, unity and a brotherhood behind closed doors and on the playing field. To ensure that the raw emotions conjured by Trump’s comments didn’t become an overwhelming distraction, the entire team and ownership met together for an hour Saturday night. And on Sunday, players, coaches and trainers delivered a message of togetherness, forming a wall of solidarity during the anthem prior to their 26-16 win over Denver.
But a day later, the Bills rookie head coach tried to put the lid back on the political discourse, sounding every bit as dry and unaffected as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
“We’ve got to get our focus on our team and the Atlanta Falcons at this point,” McDermott said. “Again, we're focused on the Atlanta Falcons and what’s going to happen next week will happen next week.”
Herein lies the challenge for any NFL head coach: Juggling the responsibilities of preparing his team to win football games, while also being sensitive to their players’ desire to express their feelings in a public setting.
It’s an unprecedented position to be in. But it’s a quagmire that won’t be solved soon — not if the tone and commentary coming from the White House doesn’t change.
Pressed on Trump’s asinine assertion that NFL players should be "fired" for protesting during the anthem, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, suggested on Monday that athletes should start protesting the “officers on the field that are protecting them, instead of the American flag.”
Trump doubled down on his stance, tweeting later in the evening: “Tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our Country. #StandForOurAnthem.” He kept it up early Tuesday, tweeting "The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger," then asserting"
"Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!" and suggesting the NFL "set a rule that you can't kneel during our National Anthem!"
Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful, but polarizing decision to kneel during the anthem last summer was rooted in a desire to see racial inequality eradicated and criminal justice reform take shape. That one act spurred more players to follow suit, all with the intention of bringing attention to issues that plague communities of color across the country. But the sports world as we know it was changed by Trump’s disrespectful rhetoric.
And as Wood so eloquently put it: A line in the sand was drawn.
“I know a lot of guys were deeply hurt by it,” said the ninth-year veteran, “and guys who wouldn’t normally take a knee did it because there was a line drawn in the sand. A lot of guys just wanted to support other guys throughout the league that had maybe taken a stand in the past.”
It’s naive to assume Trump’s verbal assault on players will end any time soon. That’s something McDermott must understand and, most of all, accept.
He must also must keep in mind that his players are people and their emotions are uniquely raw, and for good reason. The anger Lorenzo Alexander felt at players being labeled “sons of bitches” by the president for exercising their constitutional right was palpable in the locker room after the Bills' win. Hughes’ visceral reaction on Monday to Kelly’s insensitive comments about McCoy and other protesters was proof that these feelings are deep and won’t easily subside.
So, if Trump’s comments spawned a league-wide movement larger that we’ve ever seen, what will be the Bills’ response be this week in Atlanta? McDermott isn’t sure.
Neither are the players.
“I don’t know, I guess we’ll see,” said Williams. "I think we’ll see how it grows or progresses. I’m not sure how to answer that. I can’t tell you what’s in the mind for the future of every Sunday.”
And it’s easy to see why.
This is uncharted territory.
For the NFL. For its players. For us all.