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NFL Week 3: When Sports and Politics Collide

Well, so much for the athlete’s adage, ‘stick to sports.’

I woke up Sunday morning and, as I always do, went online to read about this week’s pre-game NFL stories. But rather than the typical injuries and fantasy notes, every story in some way touched upon the national anthem protest—Trump doubling down on his rant, players and coaches responding, and expectations for upcoming protests dominated the headlines. The games hadn’t even begun, yet it was abundantly clear that this weekend was about the events happening on the sidelines, not on the field of play.

If you follow the NFL you know (and are probably sick of) the Colin Kaepernick saga. After kneeling during the anthem last year and speaking out against racial injustice in America, Kaepernick became somewhat of a martyr for his movement and remains to this day without a job in the NFL. Others joined him in different forms of protest last year, and a few more continued it into the early weeks of this season, but while the movement was still clearly underway, it appeared to hit somewhat of a standstill in terms of media coverage. There were a handful of protesters the first two weeks, but we soon collectively became numb to the story and moved on to the next thing. Then Donald Trump changed everything with a Friday night rant during a speech in Alabama:

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. He is fired. He’s fired!

Trump then flashed his signature hand-gun Apprentice pose to a cheering crowd before continuing:

“Total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. Everything that we stand for.”

The ensuing firestorm across professional sports burned white hot. Athletes, coaches and fans took to Twitter to declare war against the President (though I’d argue they were merely accepting Trump’s invitation to the battlefield). I have long believed that arguing as though political issues are black & white, only breeds dissension and division, and that the truth usually lies in the grey area. That argument became obsolete when Trump doubled, then tripled-down on his comments blasting protesters. He made it an ‘us vs. them’ issue, and unfortunately everyone has to pick a side.

“Arguing as though political issues are black & white, only breeds dissension and division, and that the truth usually lies in the grey area.”

The NFL’s response during Sunday’s games was one of complete unity. There is zero doubt that many players are still opposed to kneeling for the national anthem, but those differences were put aside in a show of brotherhood, at least for one day. There was more kneeling than ever before, but what stood out this time was the solidarity between nearly every player on every team, black and white, Democrat and Republican, who linked arms together as one. Star quarterbacks Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger said after the game that they are still opposed to kneeling for the anthem, but that didn’t deter Brees from standing arm-in-arm with teammates, and Roethlisberger from staying in the locker room with his team during the anthem. Ben’s Steelers were one of three teams not to take part in the anthem entirely, and even owners, many of whom have supported or donated to Trump, released statements denouncing his comments over the weekend.

Athletes and pro leagues now find themselves in a position unlike any in recent memory. Until now, most athletes have chosen to be silent on social media about these types of issues, even as the pot kept simmering closer to a boil. Well, now the boiling point has been reached, and it’s on the athletes, coaches and leagues to stand up to Trump’s divisive rhetoric and blatant disrespect. Jacksonville Jaguars Tight End Julius Thomas summed up his reasoning for the protest the best by saying, “To have the President trying to intimidate people — I wanted to send a message that I don’t condone that. I’m not okay with somebody trying to prevent someone from standing up for what they think is important.”

Don’t expect either side to back down anytime soon.