GREEN BAY – After that memorable Sunday last September when Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks and Kevin King sat on a bench during the national anthem at Lambeau Field, no other Green Bay Packers player sat or knelt the rest of the season.
Each NFL team determined its own way of addressing the movement started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested police brutality and racial inequality by declining to stand when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played. For the Packers, their collective demonstration consisted of most players standing with coaches along the sideline, arms interlocked in unity.
Such a demonstration would not violate a new NFL policy restricting protests during the national anthem. That doesn’t mean Packers players were pleased when NFL owners voted to mandate that players stand for the national anthem.
In a policy commissioner Roger Goodell announced at the owners' meeting last month, players who choose to be on the field during the national anthem must stand, or the league will fine their team. Teams also would have the option to fine players who sit or kneel. Players do have the option to stay in the locker room.
Receiver Davante Adams did not sit or kneel during the national anthem last season, but he vocally opposed President Donald Trump's criticism of NFL players who did so. Adams said he believes the NFL has joined Trump in twisting what protesting players are trying to achieve.
“You can’t fine somebody for a peaceful protest,” Adams said. “We’re not out here holding signs, saying we don’t care about the troops or we don’t care about our country or whatever. It’s a peaceful protest, and it’s something as simple as people just expressing themselves and how they wanted to do it. It brought light to the situation, but at the same time, it’s headed in a negative direction with people getting in trouble for it now.
“The league should’ve just stayed in their place where they were before and allowed people to do whatever it was that they were doing.”
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Kaepernick’s protest first caught national attention before a preseason kickoff against the Packers in 2016. For two full seasons, no Packers player joined in a demonstration.
That began to change when Bennett raised his right fist during the national anthem before the Sept. 10 regular-season opener against Seattle. After President Trump’s critical remarks at a rally in Huntsville, Ala., Bennett, King and Kendricks sat before kickoff of a Sept. 24 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Kendricks later outlined his reasons for protesting to PackersNews.com, saying he wanted to bring awareness to disaster relief in Puerto Rico over the president’s incendiary remarks.
Kendricks, who is content to put the episode behind him, said this week he believes the protest accomplished its goal.
“The whole reason for protesting was so we could bring awareness to things,” Kendricks said. “And I thought people brought awareness to what they needed to bring awareness to.”
Yet the NFL’s feud with Trump remains at the forefront of league issues.
This week, the president canceled the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles' trip to the White House. “They disagree with their President,” part of Trump’s statement read, “because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.”
Eagles receiver Torrey Smith later pointed out on Twitter that nobody on his team sat or knelt during the national anthem last season. Some players saw Trump’s statement as an example of how their protest has been not only misinterpreted, but intentionally twisted.
“People are stubborn,” King said. “Like, if you ask somebody why they’re doing something, and they give you the answer, and then you say, OK, and you change the answer, what’s the point in even asking them the question in the first place? How are you going to tell somebody else why they’re protesting? It’s been time and time again guys will say it has nothing to do with the flag, it’s police brutality and racial inequality and all this stuff, but then it’s a matter of disrespecting the flag.
“In their head, they’re mad because of what they think somebody else is doing. And I could see that if it was still up to speculation, if players haven’t talked about the reasons. But nobody has come out and said, ‘I’m sitting or I’m kneeling to disrespect the flag.’ So not one person has said that, but the issue is still about disrespecting the flag.”
Coach Mike McCarthy said he expects “collaboration” between players and team president Mark Murphy. He stressed it’s important to be “all on the same page” internally with how to approach the national anthem.
Murphy has not publicly discussed the policy since returning from the owners’ meeting. The Packers referred to McCarthy’s comments on the issue and said NFL teams and players are talking about how to use $90 million the league agreed to make available for social justice causes.
With three months until the regular season, there’s no consensus on whether Packers players will stay inside the locker room, or if they’ll lock arms like last year. Some players said they had not yet decided what they’ll do, though it seems unlikely any will sit or kneel.
Veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, who has not protested in the past, said he doesn’t believe allowing players to stay inside the locker room is much of a compromise.
“Who wants to stay inside?” Williams said. “If you’re fighting for something, staying inside is not going to really solve the issue.”
Adams said he “a hundred percent” feels the NFL’s policy restricts his First Amendment rights, though he appreciates the option for players to stay inside the locker room. He applauded owners across the league, such as the New York Jets’ Christopher Johnson, who have publicly stated they won’t fine their players.
Adams would have preferred players retained the same options they had last season.
“I’m not too excited that it’s a punishable offense now,” Adams said. “It is what it is. I feel like it’s tough to have an opinion on this stuff, because it all got kind of lost in translation over time anyway.
"The whole point of it in the beginning was the anthem was used as a vehicle to protest inequality, and it got somehow twisted into the fact that athletes don’t have appreciation for the armed forces or people that protect this country. It has nothing to do with that, and it was made clear. People still ignored.
“It’s a free country. I feel like you shouldn’t be punished over something like that. I don’t know if it’s a money issue with the league or whatever it is, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. People will make their decisions, and we’ll see how everything pans out.”
NOTE: The Packers released wide receiver Colby Pearson on Wednesday. Pearson signed as an undrafted free agent on June 1, 2017, and spent the final three weeks of the season on the practice squad.