President Trump changed dynamic of NFL protest movement

Jarrett Bell


CARSON, Calif. – They stood in a single line, side by side, their arms locked for unity in a dramatic demonstration during the national anthem.

     These were the Los Angeles Chargers and until Sunday – with no Michael Bennetts or Colin Kaepernicks stirring emotions – they barely registered a blip on the NFL Protest Meter.

The Los Angeles Chargers link arms during the national anthem before their game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

     But things have changed, thanks to the incendiary bashing from an intolerant Donald Trump – who called protesting players “sons of b------” and urged NFL owners to fire those who demonstrate during the anthem – at a campaign rally in Alabama on Friday night.

     And now the low-key Chargers are like virtually every other team in the NFL, pressed to take a stand – or a knee, in some cases – as a statement for society.

     Talk about re-igniting a movement.

     “There’s no doubt that President Trump has definitely changed the dynamic,” Dean Spanos, the Chargers’ chairman of the board, told USA TODAY Sports during a pre-game interview. “How it all shakes out, I really don’t know. We’ll all wait and see.”

     This much for sure: Thanks to Trump, the NFL served up some history on Sunday, with the unpredictable games presented with a nod to the movement occurring with demonstrations all across the league – beginning with prayers and mass kneel-downs before the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars played in London – as the ultimate in-your-face gesture to Trump.

      That Spanos joined his team on the sideline, locking arms with players during the anthem, illustrated another type of statement as several team owners and executives joined players in the protests that began to raise awareness of racial inequalities in the nation and the slayings of unarmed African-Americans by police.

      That’s huge. And unprecedented optics in a league with its fair share of acrimony flowing from labor issues.

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      But Trump essentially “punked” the owners – several of whom combined to donate millions of dollars to the campaign and inauguration festivities – right along with the players when he urged supporters to stop attending games and mocked NFL efforts to make football safer.

      It’s no wonder that while players tweeted reactions on Saturday, team owners across the league defended players and their game with a blitz of statements.

     “It’s hard not to be emotional,” Spanos told USA TODAY Sports. “I respect every one of our players, and it’s important that they know I have their back side. I want to be there for them. Everybody has the right of expression. That’s why this country’s so great. I may not agree with what some want to do and some may not agree with things I want to do, but I want to stand united with our team.”

     While the Chargers opted for a unified team demonstration, following discussions on Saturday night, the Kansas City Chiefs rolled with a demonstration of their own on the other sideline at StubHub Center.

      The Chiefs’ players demonstrated individually -– and at least 15 conducted some form of a gesture.

      Before Sunday, cornerback Marcus Peters was the only Chiefs player to protest this season, as he did last season, with a fist raised as he sat on the bench during the anthem. On Sunday, as Peters sat, other Chiefs either took a knee, raised a fist or sat on benches. Others stood at full attention with their hands over their hearts. And one player, linebacker Tanoh Kpassognon, appeared to be praying as he sat with his head bowed.

Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs takes a knee during the national anthem.

     During the first two weeks of the NFL season, the anthem protests that became a theme last season had largely faded, like a fad, with probably no more than a dozen players across the league, Suddenly, protests are a much more widely accepted part of the NFL fabric – even while the quarterback who ignited the anthem protests more than a year ago, Kaepernick, is still unemployed as apparent punishment for being such a lightning rod.

     “This is not about disrespecting the flag,” Spanos said.

    Indeed. After Kaepernick began his protests, he was widely ridiculed for the perception that his gesture was a slight at the U.S. military and the American flag that it defends. As much as Kaepernick tried to explain his purpose, his message was lost with so many who misinterpreted his actions.

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     Maybe now there will be more clarity.

     There is surely more widespread, inclusive support for the cause in NFL circles as two of the NFL’s highest-profiled players – white quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers – tweeted photos with messages underscoring unity in the aftermath of Trump’s bashing.

      That’s especially significant, coming from Brady, whom Trump has publicly lauded as a friend and who sported a Make America Great Again cap in his locker at one time, but has said little publicly as controversies involving Trump swirl.

      Then again, moments like these – weeks after the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va. – can change minds, perceptions, actions … and maybe even hearts.

      Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis admitted to ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez on Sunday that he instructed his players last season, after meeting with stars Derek Carr and Khalil Mack, not to protest while wearing the team’s uniform.

      That Davis doesn’t feel that way anymore is a sign of progress.

     “Over the last year … the streets have gotten hot and there has been a lot of static in the air and recently, fuel has been added to the fire,” Davis told ESPN. “I can no longer ask our team to not say something while they are in a Raider uniform. The only thing I can ask them is to do it with class. Do it with pride.”

     And now the larger hope is that the NFL’s example leads the way to even greater change.