The buzz after Sunday’s NFL games was more about politics than plays.
After President Trump’s comments Friday that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be kicked out of the league, dozens of members of the league did it anyway in a dramatic show of unity. During Sunday’s games, several players, owners, and team employees knelt, bowed their heads, linked arms, or stayed in the locker room while the national anthem played.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump told the crowd at a rally for Republican senator Luther Strange, who’s running in a special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ former seat.
Trump’s comments likely alluded to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the national anthem last season in protest of racial injustice. A handful of other players have taken similar actions without drawing much attention.
So Trump’s timing was bizarre: After Kaepernick’s protest seemed to cost him his football career — when his contract with the 49ers ended, no other team extended him an offer — his fight appeared largely finished. And instead of ending the controversy, Trump seemed to have just poured gasoline on it.
The response to Trump’s comments got started in London, when the Jacksonville Jaguars took a knee during the national anthem at the annual NFL International Series Match at Wembley Stadium. The Jaguars’ billionaire owner, Shahid Khan — who had donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee — also linked arms with his players.
“Our team and the National Football League reflects our nation, with diversity coming in many forms — race, faith, our views and our goals,” Khan said in a statement. “We have a lot of work to do, and we can do it, but the comments by the president make it harder.”
The Denver Broncos kneeled during the national anthem before their game against the Buffalo Bills.
LeSean McCoy was one of the many Buffalo Bills who also took a knee. The owners of the Bills, Terry and Kim Pegula, said in a statement, “President Trump’s remarks were divisive and disrespectful to the entire NFL community, but we tried to use them as an opportunity to further unify our team and our organization.”
Many of the New England Patriots kneeled, while others including Tom Brady, who considers Trump a friend, stood with arms locked. Brady told ESPN on Monday, “I certainly disagree with what he said. I thought it was just divisive.”
Patriots Chairman Robert Kraft, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural festivities, added in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of comments made by the president.”
Laremy Tunsil, Maurice Smith, and Julius Thomas of the Miami Dolphins all kneeled during the national anthem.
Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs went down on both knees.
The bench of the Seattle Seahawks remained empty during the national anthem on Sunday, as both the Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans — who played one another — refused to appear at all during the song.
Only one Pittsburgh Steeler emerged from the locker room during the national anthem: Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan.
By Monday morning, Trump had pivoted to championing a different all-American sport: NASCAR.
He also supported the fans who’d booed kneeling players — who he said made up only a “small percentage of the total” — and said the issue had “nothing to do with race.”
But for the NFL, a famously conservative sports league, players and owners’ willingness to take on the president was especially striking. Boomer Esiason, a former quarterback and “NFL Today” analyst, said the “unity between the owners and the players [is] like I’ve never seen before.”