The majority of fans at the Green Bay Packers vs. Bears game held their hands over their hearts for the National Anthem on Sept. 28, 2017. Sarah Kloepping | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - A request by Green Bay Packers players for fans to join them in a show of unity during the national anthem before their game Thursday apparently did little to calm the debate.
Packers fans on Wednesday continued to blast the NFL, the team and players for what they perceive as showing disrespect for the nation, the flag, the military or the national anthem by sitting, kneeling, remaining in the locker room or locking arms during the national anthem. Supporters say players are peacefully exercising their free speech rights on the best stage available.
"We’ve had a steady stream of feedback beginning Monday morning and it continued into Wednesday. We’ve heard on both sides of the matter," said Aaron Popkey, Packers director of public affairs. "We take note of their concerns."
The Packers play the Chicago Bears at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in a nationally televised game that follows a weekend when all but one NFL team staged some show of unity or protest.
The issue escalated after President Donald Trump urged owners to discipline players who sit or kneel during the national anthem.
“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," Trump said during a campaign rally last week for Sen. Luther Strange, R-Alabama.
Before Trump's comments, only a handful of players across the league protested during the national anthem.
President Trump said NFL players should be fired for kneeling during the national anthem. USA TODAY Sports
The show of unity seemed to be as much a response to the president's comments as to the concern for racial equality that prompted then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to launch that form of protest last season. But as with fans, personal reasons varied for NFL owners, coaches and players to join in demonstrations of unity and support.
On Sunday, most of the Packers locked arms during the national anthem and three sat through the song. Players on Tuesday invited fans at Thursday's game to join them in locking arms in a show of unity.
Gov. Scott Walker said he will stand and put his hand over his heart for the national anthem during Thursday's game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Sept. 27, 2017. Jeff Bollier | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
But unity could prove elusive.
"I am so ashamed of and appalled by the ignorance of any NFL player who would dare disgrace our Stars and Stripes or the memory of hundreds of thousands of fallen U.S. heroes who paid with their lives so that we may live free," said Steven Tiefenthaler, a native of Brookfield who now lives in San Antonio. Tiefenthaler is a Packers shareholder and 20-year U.S. Air Force veteran.
Tiefenthaler said he was humbled by once flying the remains of American servicemen to the states, an experience that stays with him.
"My allegiance to our American flag and to our national anthem will always stand far above any loyalty to the NFL or to the Green Bay Packers organization," he said.
Laura Hapke, a La Crosse native now living in Orange, Calif., said the Packers were the last team she expected to do what they did Sunday.
Hapke meets with other Packers fans each week to watch the game. Her mother is a shareholder and she's on the season-ticket waiting list. In other words, she's a diehard fan.
"If they come out and say they are more into politics than patriotism, I’ll have to rethink it," she said. "It will break my heart, but I’ll have to rethink it."
Shawano native Lloyd Hohn, who now lives in Bismark, N.D., said he is more disappointed than angry.
"It was and is a heartbreaker to see my beloved Packers involved in this protest. I doubt injustice is going to be affected by this action. It is style over substance," he said. "The players during their off time need to be physically and vocally involved to bring change."
Some fans threatened on social media and in emails to return shares or season tickets. Popkey said he's aware of one share and no season tickets being returned.
"If they want to return them and don't want to be a shareholder, we'll accept them," he said.
Shares are irrevocable, which means shareholders will not receive their money back.
Popkey said the Packers organization is focused on hosting a second home game in four days.
"It's a quick turn for everyone, so that's a challenge in and of itself," he said. "When you have some other things that come into play, you work to address those as well and keep your focus on the game."
Teams and fans have tried to navigate the issue in a way that pleases everyone. Bill Carothers of Baronet suggested players lock one arm with the player next to them, leaving the other hand to place over the heart.
The Dallas Cowboys on Sunday knelt and locked arms before the national anthem, then stood for the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Hapke said the NFL Players Association should take the lead in starting a discussion on social equality — but away from the arena.
"If the players association would act outside the game, I think it would be great," she said.
About 100 of 1,696 players took a knee Sunday, according to tabulations by John Swenson of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate. More than 60, including most of the Oakland Raiders, sat on the bench, five raised a fist and 182 stayed in locker rooms. The remainder locked arms before or during the anthem, some joined by coaches and even owners.
Some players who took a knee also put their hands over their hearts, but linking arms or holding hands while standing or sitting was more common.
Fans who enjoy football as an escape from political issues object to having their entertainment encroached upon.
"I watch football to watch football. This an entertainment business. Bringing in the drama and political rhetoric to the job is not entertaining," said Herb Jabs of Mt. Horeb. "I think the league underestimates the tolerance of normal fans who seek out football to get a break from the daily barrage of rhetoric of political division."