By Holden Walter-Warner
Before the tweetstorms, before the backlash, it all started with the simple gesture of sitting down. Back during the 2016 NFL preseason –notably, still during the Obama administration– then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the singing of the national anthem.
At the time, he told NFL Media: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
His teammate Eric Reid joined in the silent protest, making one adjustment. “We came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture, “ he wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
Kaepernick’s career has since stalled, as he appears to have been blackballed from the league, but still, the protests continue. Gaining traction, players all over the country have taken a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick and against the oppression of people of color.
The anthem itself has come under fire by some, for a verse in the original poem that is not included in the sung version. That verse appears to celebrate the death of African-American slaves.
The players and teams who have continued protesting during the anthem grew significantly after President Donald Trump brought up the issue at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, in September 2017. "Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired," Trump told the crowd. "He’s fired!"
That comment led to rebukes from around the NFL, and protests of police brutality, the anthem and Trump continue on football fields across America.
The Baltimore Ravens, who were playing an earlier game in London, started the day of protests, with many players kneeling on the sideline during the anthem, which linebacker Terrell Suggs implied was in direct response to Trump's comments.
On the opposite sideline, many Jacksonville Jaguars stood with owner Shad Khan, who linked arms with his players, a strategy the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins would echo later in the day.
While many players knelt during the playing of the national anthem, others showed support to their teammates by placing their hands on the shoulders of the players who chose to demonstrate on their knees.
Perhaps the biggest statement came from the Dallas Cowboys. Owner Jerry Jones knelt with his team for a brief moment prior to the playing of the national anthem, attempting to separate the conversation about social justice from the symbolism many people connect to the anthem, and the American flag as a whole.
There was controversy beyond the nature of the protests. The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of several teams who decided to stay in their locker room during the National Anthem as a way of distancing themselves from the song altogether. Alejandro Villanueva, an offensive tackle and Afghanistan veteran, was seen by himself at the edge of the tunnel with his hand over his heart.
Villanueva has since stated that a miscommunication led to him stand outside the locker room by himself, and that he remains supportive of those who choose to protest.
The specter of Kaepernick reigns over the protests in the NFL. Most of last year's protesters didn't face consequences on or off the field for their actions, but the quarterback remains out of the league, likely as a direct result of his leadership in last year's protests.
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