The NFL season is barely underway, but already the focus is being taken away from the field and directed at the sidelines.
Colin Kaepernick started protesting what he says are racist police practices and behavior by sitting during the national anthem before the kickoffs of preseason games, but as the regular season starts, the stakes — and his protest’s visibility — are that much higher.
On the day the country observed the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, what was the reaction during the season-opening NFL games?
Miami Dolphins @ Seattle Seahawks
At least four Miami Dolphins declined to stand during the anthem Sunday ahead of their season opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
Jelani Jenkins, Arian Foster, Michael Thomas and Kenny Stills knelt next to each other in a line which included their standing teammates. The Dolphins lost the game 10-12.
Model Kate Upton took umbrage with the protest, suggesting that it was “unacceptable” and that Americans should “support each other” on 9/11.
She later tweeted that she supported the players’ right to protest, just “not the time during the anthem and on 9/11.”
San Diego Chargers @ Kansas City Chiefs
Standing arm in arm with his teammates, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters took a different take on the protest, raising a gloved fist, in a pose reminiscent of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Peters had previously spoken of his “100 percent” support of Kaepernick’s stance.
The Chiefs beat the Chargers 33-27.
New England Patriots @ Arizona Cardinals
Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots both echoed Peters’ raised-fist protest ahead of their upset 23-21 win over the Cardinals in Arizona.
Minnesota Vikings @ Tennessee Titans
In Nashville, Titans’ linebacker Avery Williamson defied the NFL, which had threatened to fine him, and wore custom blue cleats with stars and the words, “Never Forget” on the heels.
He said he intended to auction them off and deliver the proceeds to a veterans’ charity. As of lunchtime Monday, bids had topped $6,000.
The Christian nonprofit American Family Association came to Williamson’s defense and slammed the NFL for threatening to fine players who protest issues via their attire, while “doing nothing to address the ongoing disrespect to the national anthem before games around the nation.”
“The NFL’s failure to address this growing issue is a gross disrespect of American values,” AFA President Tim Wildmon said. “The NFL is wholeheartedly disregarding the code that sets the standard for how individuals should conduct themselves during the national anthem. The NFL’s true colors are emerging as a progressive, left-leaning organization that is attempting to appear fair, neutral and accommodating when, in actuality, the league is enabling activists, individuals and groups that disrespect the U.S.A.”
New York Giants @ Dallas Cowboys
It was a star-spangled affair in Dallas, to be sure, complete with police officers and other first responders unfurling a field-length American flag ahead of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and President George W. Bush taking the field for the coin toss to chants of “USA! USA!”
Local media reports and tweets from inside the stadium indicate all the Giants and Cowboys players stood for the national anthem, a statement in itself, though perhaps less overt than the footwear of Giants wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz.
Like WIlliamson, both rocked custom kicks, but Beckham and Cruz each had two pairs of cleats, changing them between pregame and kickoff.
Beckham’s pregame cleats had an image of the World Trade Center, while his in-game shoes bore an eagle’s head on the instep. Cruz’s game shoes had an American flag emblazoned over them, while his pregame shoes were a nod to the New York City Fire Department and reportedly included the engine number of his late father, a former Paterson, New Jersey, firefighter.
Protests not just for the pros
Kaepernick retweeted a picture purporting to show several members of a high school team, Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, kneeling during the anthem.
The Twittersphere was divided between support and condemnation for the athlete.
“So much respect for Kaepernick and all the other athletes standing up for what they believe is right, regardless of what people will say,” one user tweeted.
Others noted the date, saying that it was particularly “disrespectful” not to honor the anthem on 9/11.
Protest started preseason
Ahead of Sunday’s games, Kaepernick’s teammate Eric Reid and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane had shown their support with similar protests, as has NWSL’s Megan Rapinoe, who knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick before the Washington Spirit shut down her protest by altering the pre-game ceremony.
Also in preseason, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall knelt during the national anthem before Thursday night’s 21-20 win over the Carolina Panthers, his actions costing him an endorsement deal with the Air Academy Federal Credit Union.
Protest stings like a bee?
Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jared Odrick penned a Sports Illustrated piece in which he questioned the vitriol aimed at the players protesting — namely, the Twitter users who have wished a concussion on Marshall.
Odrick criticized the NFL for paying lip service to valuing its players as conscientious members of the community, while media relations staff push players to keep interviews franchise-friendly and vilify players “when we step outside the bounds of our third-down efficiency,” he wrote. Odrick reminded readers that many athletes before Kaepernick were criticized for taking stands, only to be celebrated as heroes later.
“As Americans we’ve forgotten that we’re supposed to loathe falling in line. So-called renegades shouldn’t be embraced only after decades have passed and their causes deemed by historians to be acceptable or inevitable. Muhammad Ali challenged our country in fundamental ways while captivating audiences with his skill in the ring. He is viewed now as a cultural warrior, when in reality he lived as a pariah in his prime,” Odrick wrote.
Outside of the nation’s sporting arenas, a Navy sailor posted a video of herself sitting during the national anthem at a Florida military base last week. She could face punishment after her post went viral.
Kaepernick himself continued his protest, kneeling alongside Reid. He had previously sat out the anthem ahead of other preseason games, but during those occasions had not dressed.
The quarterback’s protest has evolved from remaining seated during the anthem to taking a knee in out of respect for the military.
He has vowed to continue to kneel during the anthem in the pre-game ceremonies of his team’s clashes this season. The 49ers host the Los Angeles Rams on Monday.