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NFL players seek clarity on stand for solidarity

By Howard Balzer, The Sports Xchange
NFL players seek clarity on stand for solidarity
National Football League Twitter

It has been a week unlike most others in NFL history. A league that often has a variety of headline-grabbing stories on off-field issues saw it up-ramped to unprecedented levels following comments made by President Donald Trump at an Alabama rally on the evening of Sept. 22 when he called for NFL players to be suspended or fired for not standing for the playing of the national anthem.

The response was overwhelming by the league's teams, with players, owners and other club personnel linked arm in arm during the anthem while some players kneeled or sat in protest of racial inequality and police brutality. Several teams -- Pittsburgh, Seattle and Tennessee -- stayed in the locker room for the anthem, although one player from the Steelers, tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left the locker room and stood for the anthem at the end of the tunnel leading from the locker room to the field. Villanueva served three tours in Afghanistan.

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President Trump continued his comments on the divisive issue in the days after the game, while television news shows debated the actions by players and CNN conducted a Town Hall on the subject.

Most players were discouraged that the intent of those who kneeled was not addressed and that the discussion by those in disagreement considered it a lack of respect for the military and the anthem despite numerous players saying that isn't the issue and noting that many players have family members that have served. The latter has been a consistent theme since the protests began in 2016 when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat for the anthem and then later kneeled.

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Titans tight end Delanie Walker, who revealed he received death threats since the team avoided the anthem last Sunday, said, "We're not disrespecting the military, the men and women that serve. That's not what it's all about. I've been (on USO tours). I support the troops. This is not about that. It's about equal rights, and that's all everyone is trying to show, is that we all care about each other."

Still, the volume from critics increased with Trump's words, which were met with hearty cheers from those attending the rally. It became clear the nation was split, which shined the light even more on what players would do going forward.

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On Tuesday, several owners and players met in New York with commissioner Roger Goodell and league executive vice president/football operations Troy Vincent, a former player.

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Owners included John Mara of the New York Giants; Robert Kraft, New England Patriots; Art Rooney II, Steelers; Jeffrey Lurie, Philadelphia Eagles; Jimmy and Dee Haslam, Cleveland Browns; Stephen Ross, Miami Dolphins; and Shahid Khan, Jacksonville Jaguars.

Representing the players were Eagles defensive end Chris Long, Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas, wide receiver Matthew Slater and safety Devin McCourty of the Patriots and cornerback Jason McCourty and linebacker Christian Kirksey of the Browns.

Casillas said afterward, "We were basically talking about what we're going to do to move forward and how we're going to approach the whole kneeling situation. It was a whole bunch of opinions shared. There was nothing we decided we're going to do collectively."

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Devin McCourty said, "I think the biggest thing is as players, we've got to keep in the forefront of what we want to get (across), the inequality. I think that's what's important. We've got to make sure this whole thing doesn't turn into the NFL vs. Donald Trump. As players, obviously, he is whatever he is. We can probably have an hour of trying to describe that and everything he is. But I think as players, we have an agenda of what we think can be done better and we're trying to use our platform, and I think we have to stick to that."

Thursday night in Green Bay, each team stood for the anthem arm in arm, and a smattering of fans also did in response to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' request.

Prior to that game, a statement on the team website said, "Those of us joining arms on Thursday will be different in so many ways, but one thing that binds us together is that we are all individuals who want to help make our society, our country and our world a better place. Intertwined, we represent the many people who helped build this country, and we are joining together to show that we are ready to continue to build."

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Now, with another full schedule of games Sunday and Monday night, the spotlight will again be on the anthem to see what teams do.

Numerous teams have not revealed their plans, but one that did is significant because the New Orleans Saints are playing in London in early morning United States time against the Dolphins.

Last Sunday, Khan stood with his players arm in arm in London, and the fact that game began three-and-half hours before other games kicked off set the stage for what happened in stadiums throughout the league.

Then, last Monday night, the Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, walked onto the field before the anthem, kneeled as a team arm in arm and then walked back to the sideline and stood with arms interlocked for the anthem.

That is what the Saints will do Sunday following their game last Sunday on the road against the Carolina Panthers where 10 players sat on the bench during the anthem.

In a statement, Saints owner Tom Benson said, "As an owner in the NFL and NBA for years, I have met many players, coaches and staff from seemingly every background possible. But as this week has demonstrated, there are very sensitive, difficult and emotional matters affecting this country. Now more than ever we must find solutions that unite and don't divide us.

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"Today, Drew Brees and team leadership stated that our team will stand for the national anthem. Regarding the issues of social injustice, I stand ready to offer our organizations, our players, and our community meaningful support and resources to move from protest to solution. We have spoken to our state leadership in Governor Jon Bel Edwards - he is also ready to do what he can with us to affect positive change."

The Atlanta Falcons have also asked fans to lock arms during the anthem Sunday when the team hosts the Buffalo Bills.

Head coach Dan Quinn said, "For us, we will lock arms together during that time, and we would encourage our fans to do the same. I think that would be kind of a nice tribute as we're getting started. It's an important time in our world. There are a lot of issues that are really important to talk about, and we'll spend some time and we have as a team talking through some of those."

Quinn said he had talked to defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe, who kneeled in last Sunday's game, and he doesn't expect anyone to kneel this week.

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Poe said, "I know people (in the military). I have a girl friend who's in the Air Force. She's in the reserves now. I'm not disrespecting that at all. I wouldn't disrespect her like that. At the same time, I felt it wasn't disrespecting the flag, but I was just standing up for what I believe in."

Poe also relayed what Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn said to the team about diversity, and explained how many in the country could learn from it.

"He put it in such great words," Poe said. "It was something that I paid close attention to. It was all truth in it. Basically, he wishes the outside world was like our locker room, with people of all different colors and creeds ... we're fighting together. We are a Brotherhood.

"We don't look at nothing else but that. He said he wished the world was like that and that it would be much better place. I totally agree with him."

Of course, what is done on a Thursday, or Sunday, or Monday on an NFL sideline is just a gesture. It's why Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin talked about a program the players are starting with club support.

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Baldwin said, "In an effort to create lasting change and build a more compassionate and inclusive society, we are launching the Seahawks Players Equality & Justice for All Action Fund to support education and leadership programs addressing equality and justice. We invite you to join us in donating and taking action."

Baldwin said the players started talking about ideas when they would be asked by those not with the organization what could be done to truly impact a community.

Concluded Baldwin, "I think that was really important, because for the longest time now, we've been trying to figure out, what can we do as a team to impact change? And this is something that's really tangible to all of us. And again, we really wanted this to be a unified effort. We've been trying to make a unified demonstration, a unified message, and now this is a unified action we can all take. And now we're going to be able to incorporate people outside of the building."

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