Packers stress national anthem's importance amid NFL protests

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY – Ten years before national-anthem decorum became a controversial topic across the NFL, polarized with Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest by sitting last season, Mike McCarthy started stressing the song’s importance to his players.

Packers players stand for the national anthem before  their game against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 11, 2016 at Lambeau Field.

McCarthy said he has used the same PowerPoint presentation each year since his first as the Green Bay Packers coach in 2006. Before the Packers' exhibition opener – this year it was before the Family Night practice, McCarthy said – players are taught the national anthem’s meaning. They learn about its connection with sports, why it has been played before kickoffs and tip-offs and first pitches and puck drops since World War II.

McCarthy’s message hasn’t changed, left guard Lane Taylor said, even as something that once was an automated part of the NFL’s pregame process has become anything but routine.

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“He just tells you to put your hand over your heart,” Taylor said. “I think he says it’s something he appreciates and stuff. I think it’s been pretty standard, and I know it’s a big subject nowadays, but he hasn’t changed the way he presents it to us or anything.”

Protests started in the NFL last year when Kaepernick, then the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback, sat through the national anthem before a preseason game against the Packers. Kaepernick said his demonstration was meant to protest racial inequality and police brutality.

The movement continues throughout the league one year later.

Before the Oakland Raiders' exhibition opener last week, running back Marshawn Lynch sat on a bench as the national anthem played. Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Michael Bennett sat on a bench through the national anthem before kickoff against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Bennett’s demonstration provided the closest connection to the Packers since Kaepernick started the trend of sitting or kneeling last preseason. Tight end Martellus Bennett, Michael's younger brother, is new to the Packers' locker room this season.

Martellus Bennett said this week he supports his brother's decision to protest. He added he wasn’t planning to sit through the national anthem Saturday when the Packers play their second exhibition in the nation’s capital. The Packers' trip to Washington comes in the aftermath of violence at white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend.

Cornerback Davon House was asked Thursday how he thought protesting during the national anthem would be received in Green Bay.

“That’s a dangerous question I’m going to avoid right now,” House said after pausing to consider his words carefully.

His answer exemplified the protest’s potentially nuclear nature. Players cautiously approach the topic, and for good reason. Kaepernick remains unemployed despite almost universal belief he’s talented enough at age 29 to merit an invitation to a team’s training camp. With no Packers players having protested, it's unknown how the team's hierarchy would react.

General manager Ted Thompson said Thursday he is able to separate his personal preference from expectations on how his players should conduct themselves during the national anthem.

“I view this as something you’re asking me from a personal standpoint,” Thompson said. “Not what I would do, but what I would feel about a particular player if he made such and such action, or if he failed to make such and such action. This is a free country in my opinion, and free people can do what they like.”

Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said he never has considered not standing during the national anthem.

“It’s a waste of time," Jean Francois said. "It’s a waste of my energy. I understand it may help, but tell me what’s going to help right now with what’s going on in the country. Nothing, really. At the end of the day, the only people I can help is my wife, my kids, my family – and that’s it. I understand we’re trying to get a point across, but is that point really getting across right now, or is it making more mayhem?

“So at the end of the day, you just want to back off and be like, ‘Man, forget it. In due time it’ll take care of itself, hopefully.’ If it doesn’t, I just have to make sure my family and my child and other people around me (are) well aware of what’s going on, and just got to be safe.”

The Packers aren’t the only NFL team that discusses national-anthem decorum during training camp.

House, who played the past two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, said his former team regimented anthem decorum. In Jacksonville, House said, players were told to place their helmet across their chest, behind the back or under their right arm.

“It’s kind of the exact same thing” as McCarthy’s presentation, House said. “It shows an overview picture of how guys are standing up, and overview of everyone standing in a line.”

Yet not every team addresses anthem decorum with a presentation. Jean Francois, who is playing with his fourth NFL team, said McCarthy’s presentation was the first he has seen.

Jean Francois saw protests firsthand last season when he played with Washington. Before a September game at the New York Giants, Washington receivers Desean Jackson and Rashad Ross, tight end Niles Paul and cornerback Greg Toler raised their fists during the national anthem.

One week later, Washington planned to honor military branches at a home game. Jean Francois said players had a team meeting with president Bruce Allen.

“In so many words,” Jean Francois said, “he wanted it to stop. Because you’ve got to realize we’re in the nation’s capital, we’re around military. We’re around every branch of the military, and just to do that, it’s going to seem disrespectful.”

Before Washington’s game that afternoon against the Cleveland Browns, Jackson, the most visible player among the quartet, wore custom cleats with caution tape to protest police brutality. He did not protest through the national anthem.

Jean Francois said any player can choose whether to protest, but they must understand potential consequences.

Coincidence or not, of the four Washington players who protested early last season, three are no longer with the team.

“Some of our players made the choice,” Jean Francois said. “They had to deal with the consequences."

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