When he set out to challenge NFL protesters, Donald Trump took the opposite tack.
The US president essentially called out-of-work quarterback Colin Kaepernick “an SOB” for ‘taking a knee’ to protest racial injustice during the national anthem.
And any player who followed him?
“Fire ’em!” Trump said.
He may have wound up inspiring them instead.
Almost all of the 200 players who took part in protests during Sunday’s games were doing so for the first time. They became “woke”, stirred into protest by Trump’s words. In follow-up interviews, Seattle coach Pete Carroll and linebackers Von Miller of Denver and Lorenzo Alexander of Buffalo discussed why their thinking changed, what they hoped to accomplish and whether they intend to continue protesting.
Not everyone kneeled, a gesture Kaepernick began during the Obama administration, when he still had a job with the San Francisco 49ers and few followers. This time, there was plenty of support and their defiance ran the gamut, from raising fists to staying seated to not showing up for the national anthem.
There were loud discussions in some locker rooms before teams arrived at a consensus about what to do. They were greeted by boos in more than one stadium. Some teams issued statements explaining their decisions. Eight owners linked arms with their players. Even legendary quarterback Tom Brady got involved.
“We understand why people are upset about it,” Carroll said. “It is not about denigration of the flag, the country or anything that stands for. It’s not about that at all.
“It’s about trying to get your feelings out and your ideas across. Protests, just by the nature of the word, not everybody is going to agree – that’s why it’s a protest,” he added.
Here, three NFL personalities explain their stance:
Pete Carroll, 66, coach, Seattle Seahawks
“This isn’t about the kind of salaries they make; they’re very fortunate to be where they are and they know it and they have the courage to speak out.
“I think it’s extraordinary that this is happening and I think it’s a moment that we all can learn what we want to learn out of this. I hope we learn about empathy, to listen, to come to an understanding what someone else feels without passing judgment. It doesn’t mean you’re going to agree. That’s OK. That’s OK.
“Hopefully, like I said, the compassion part will come about in the proper manner and there will be action taken and there will be movement made, and we’ll come to an understanding. It’s hard. It’s hard, but it’s good. .
“Sport has always been the uniter. It has never been the divider. And to make it something other than that is a terrible mistake because it’s an institution in our culture and in others around the world. It demonstrates all of the beautiful things about culture and all of the beautiful things about bringing people together from different backgrounds and rallying for common goals.”
Von Miller, 28, linebacker Denver Broncos
“Me and my team-mates, we felt like President Trump’s speech was an assault on our most cherished right, freedom of speech. Collectively, we felt like we had to do something for this game, if not any other game, if not in the past, in the future. At this moment in time, we felt like, as a team, we had to do something. We couldn’t just let things go.
“I have a huge respect for the military, our protective services and everything. I’ve been to Afghanistan; I’ve met real-life superheroes. It wasn’t any disrespect to them, it was for our brothers that have been attacked for things that they do during the game, and I felt like I had to join them on it.
“I felt like it was an attack on the National Football League as well. You know, he went on and talked about ratings. This is my life, and I love everything about the National Football League. From the commissioner, all the way down to the field tech guys and the chefs in the kitchen. .. I try to keep out any politics or social issues and just try to play ball. But I feel like it was an attack on us.
“If I’m not going to do anything in the future, if I haven’t done anything in the past, I feel like this was the time to do something.”
Lorenzo Alexander, 34, linebacker, Buffalo Bills
“Me taking a knee doesn’t change the fact that I support our military. I’m a patriot and I love my country. But I also recognise there are some social injustices in this country. I wanted to take a knee in support of my brothers who have been doing it.
“I won’t continue to do it, but I just wanted to show them that I was with them – especially in the backdrop of our president making the comments about our players, about their mothers. And then you put that in conjunction with how he tried to grey-area neo-Nazism and KKK members as being fine people, I had to take a knee.
“And I was very emotional about it all day. It wasn’t like a kneejerk reaction. I really had to think about what I wanted to do today. People always say words never hurt, but words are very divisive, and it creates a lot of issues domestically and internationally. He needs to really control himself.”