Showdown over NFL anthem protests moves to Monday night

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DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals may add a little dunh-dunh-dunh-dunnnhhh to this weekend’s national anthem protests.

The two face off on “Monday Night Football,” and though there’s always been a little bad blood between the former division rivals, they’re polar opposites when it comes to players standing during the national anthem.

That could be on display after a weekend in which President Donald Trump slammed the NFL, and players and coaches responded by kneeling, locking elbows or remaining in the locker room during the pregame performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

On one sideline, you’ll have Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians who said it’s up to players to decide whether to stand or kneel during the anthem.

“That is an individual right of an American,” he said.

On the other sideline in Glendale, Arizona, will be Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who was reticent at best when questioned by reporters.

“We have an approach that we believe in, and no real comment beyond that,” he said, to sportswriters’ dissatisfaction.

They kept grilling him. Will the players do anything? Has there been a discussion?

“No,” Garrett said, drawing an awkward silence as reporters waited for him to elaborate. He didn’t.

Another journalist asked: Did Garrett not have an opinion on the protests, or was he simply reluctant to share it?

“I just don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interests for me to comment on that,” he said.

With that, the press conference moved on to football matters. It’s worth noting though that the man who signs Garrett’s paychecks has been vocal about the anthem protests.

A controversial Sunday

Last year, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick saw only a modicum of support for the anthem protests he’s pioneered, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told a Fort Worth radio station that such demonstrations were “really disappointing.”

Jones reiterated those sentiments last week, telling Fox Business that the pregame national anthem wasn’t the time for players to express themselves in society.

“That’s not the place to do anything other than honor the flag and everybody that’s given up a little for it,” he said.

‘Most reputable men I’ve ever met’

No players from either team have taken part in an anthem protest to date, but given teams’ reactions to Trump’s criticism over the weekend, it’s possible players might opt to speak out on one of the NFL’s biggest stages, “Monday Night Football.”

Cowboys players, in their public statements, have largely trod the middle ground on the issue, while at least two Cardinals declined to rule out the possibility of protesting Monday night.

Arians has said he concurs with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who called Trump’s remarks divisive and said they demonstrate “an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL” and its players.

“I’ve been in locker rooms for 25 years, and some of the most reputable men I’ve ever met wear that uniform,” Arians said. “To even overcome the things in their life to get to the NFL is amazing. What they’ve done in the last month for hurricane relief victims speaks volumes of what we’re all about in the NFL.”

Offensive lineman D.J. Humphries was less diplomatic, declining to call Trump by his name.

“You can’t talk to that person,” he said. “You’re talking to a wall. You may as well talk to my locker because you’re going to get the same response. It’s sad. I hate that this happened. I’m just trying to figure a way that I can help my people, and help the people on this side of the spectrum understand right and wrong.”

Humphries also echoed the words of defensive end Frostee Rucker, who said now is the time to come together and “show compassion, love and everything else we do.”

“It’s a brotherhood in the locker room. We’re out in the community, and we know ourselves. We know everything we’re about. We can’t let one single person, even though it’s the President, dictate how we feel. We stick together. We’re in a union. If someone takes a knee, it’s almost like we all take a knee.”

Asked specifically if the Cards would kneel during the anthem, Rucker said it was possible.

“I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “I know guys are upset. I know we do have enough leadership to be able to stick together and not do anything single-handedly. … So if there is anything like that, it’s going to be unified.”

‘Show of disrespect’

The latest chapter in the controversy came Friday night when Trump told those attending a political rally in Alabama that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who stages a protest during the national anthem.

The President’s focus remained on sports Saturday morning, as he tweeted he was rescinding a White House invitation for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors because two-time league MVP Steph Curry was “hesitating” in accepting the presidential offer. (Curry actually had flat-out declined the invitation.)

Hours later, the President went back in on athletes following in the knee prints of Kaepernick, who has said he refuses to stand during the anthem because he cannot “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Read Trump’s two-part tweet: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

Trump went on to make the protests his cause du jour — or more accurately, de deux jours — as 15 of his next 23 tweets over the weekend addressed the demonstrations.

His stance gained traction among his base and some NFL fans, who took to social media to tell athletes to stick to sports and skip the politics. Others used hashtags such #standforouranthem and #standfortheflag, tweeting that they were going to follow Trump’s advice to tune out.

NFL ratings have seen a modest decline in recent years, and the league finished at the bottom of a fan experience survey conducted by J.D. Power earlier this year. About 12% of those surveyed said they had watched fewer games than they had in previous years. Of those respondents, more than a quarter blamed the national anthem protests for their decline in viewership.

Ahead of the Sunday matchup between the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers — during which Steelers offensive lineman and ex-Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva declined to stay in the locker room with his team during the anthem — fans told CNN they disapproved of players kneeling.

“(It’s a) show of disrespect, not only for those who have fought and died for our country but for those serving,” Derek Zumbahlem said. “I disagree with it.”

Bears fan Amit Sud, too, said he felt players should stand. “I do respect the players’ rights to take the knee. However, Soldier Field has history,” he said.

‘That offends everybody’

Within the NFL there was a starkly different response, which was also reflected on social media and in some fan bases. Trump’s criticism seemed to galvanize the league’s players and coaches.

In some cases, team owners showed up on the sideline to lock arms with their players. Trump supporter Shad Khan, who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, was one of them. Trump friend Robert Kraft stood in the owners box, hand over heart, before his New England Patriots played, but he said he was “deeply disappointed” in Trump’s remarks.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees called Trump’s remarks “unbecoming of the office of the President,” while Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy said the President “is just acting like a jerk.”

Miami Dolphins safety Mike Thomas asked, “You’re the leader of the free world, and this is what you’re talking about?”

The Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans followed the Steelers’ lead, staying in the locker room for the anthem. Most teams chose to lock arms in a show of unity, but even among those squads, some players opted to kneel. The Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs and the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller lent their considerable star power to the protests, kneeling along with dozens of others players.

“What you just saw was a variety of responses with the theme of unity,” an NFL front office source said. “All across the league, owners, coaches and players came together to decide what was best for them. … If Trump thought he could divide the NFL, he was wrong.”

Athletes clap back at Trump

Sports commentator Bob Costas told CNN the response among players and coaches was “universal” and said, “There’s almost no one in the NFL who wants to support or rationalize the tone or content of President Trump’s remarks.”

Asked why he felt Trump’s words united the league when the protests have been going on for more than a year, Costas compared the President’s remarks on the anthem protests to his words after white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Well, when you call people sons of bitches across the board, that offends everybody. White and black, they’ve stood shoulder to shoulder on those fields, in those locker rooms. What kind of a statement is that to make?” Costas said.

“And I don’t think it’s irrelevant that clearly the President had more passion and conviction for those remarks than he did — when he finally got around after equivocating — to distancing himself to some extent from white nationalists and neo-Nazis. He clearly had more fervor for this than for that.”


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