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NFL gets back to normal — whatever that is these days

Protests are down from a week ago, but a group of Buffalo Bills stay the course

ATLANTA — Normality returned to the NFL on Sunday, or whatever the new normal is in this politically charged era of protests during the national anthem and strong pushback against the president of the United States, as the previous week’s unprecedented display of unity was not repeated.

Week 3 was marked by demonstrations from every corner of the league by players, coaches, team executives and owners in response to President Donald Trump’s attacks on players who knelt during the anthem in an effort to draw attention to the oppression of black people and people of color in the U.S. On a much smaller scale in Week 4, some players continued to display their frustration. And with one exception, the owners’ visible support of players, which the league had proudly trumpeted, was nonexistent.

At Mercedes-Benz Stadium here, one of the day’s largest protests during the anthem occurred. Before the Buffalo Bills’ impressive 23-17 road win over the Atlanta Falcons, a group of six Bills players knelt behind the rest of the team during the anthem: Shareece Wright, Mike Tolbert, Cedric Thornton, Jerel Worthy, Taiwan Jones and Kaelin Clay. Leonard Johnson stood for the anthem next to his kneeling Buffalo teammates.

Buffalo Bills players take a knee during the national anthem before their game against the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 1 in Atlanta.

AP Photo/John Bazemore

At CenturyLink Field in Seattle, nine Seahawks players, including Michael Bennett, sat on the bench during the anthem before their game against the Indianapolis Colts. At FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, nine Browns players raised their fists midway through the anthem before their game against the Cincinnati Bengals. At Sports Authority Field in Denver, Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch sat during the anthem and wore an “Everybody vs. Trump” T-shirt before the Raiders played the Broncos.

For the cadre of Bills players who made a statement, their message was aimed at a much bigger audience than solely Trump.

“The guys who kneeled … we still feel a certain type of way about this country. It didn’t change in a week,” said Tolbert, a two-time All-Pro fullback who’s in his 10th season.

“We still believe that this country should be built with love, equality and justice. Everybody deserves a fair and equal share [of the American dream]. Guys like myself, I’ve got kids who have to grow up in this world. I want a better country, a better world, for my kids.”

On the opposite sideline, there wasn’t much to see.

Last week, Falcons players Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett knelt with their arms linked. This week, the entire Falcons team stood with arms interlocked during the anthem. Although some players continued the fight that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who remains unsigned, began more than a year ago, the Falcons’ lack of action was indicative of events in general.

In Baltimore, Ravens players knelt before the anthem while praying for unity and equality. Supposedly, the fact that players have protested during the anthem is what has most infuriated most fans, because, they believe, the displays are disrespectful to the flag and those who have served in the military. Ravens fans must not have gotten the memo: They still roundly booed the players.

Before the day’s first kickoff at Wembley Stadium in London, the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints took different approaches.

During the anthem, Dolphins players Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas all took a knee. In a planned show of unity, the Saints opted to kneel together before the anthem and stood together during the anthem, with many players and coaches interlocking their arms. Last week, 10 Saints players sat on the bench during the anthem.

At AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, it was business as usual for the Dallas Cowboys. After owner Jerry Jones was featured prominently in the Cowboys’ display of togetherness last week, every Dallas player stood before the team played host to the Los Angeles Rams.

Last week, the commissioner’s office and NFL owners released statements of varying degrees that criticized Trump for his comments. Owners were pictured interlocking arms with players. From a branding standpoint, it was powerful stuff. It was also, apparently, a one-week deal.

Granted, San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York and general manager John Lynch joined members of the team who chose to stand before facing the Arizona Cardinals. During the anthem, about half of the 49ers players knelt. It’s important to note, though, that the 49ers were playing for the first time since Trump made his comments. Sunday’s game was San Francisco’s first opportunity to display solidarity.

Pick a team. Pick a stadium. Relative to the new civil rights movement that’s now part of the fabric of the NFL, a lot less happened this week than last week. That’s not surprising.

The reality is, Trump’s comments ignited much of the outrage that resulted in every team doing something in Week 3 — not the issues that prompted Kaepernick to risk his career to support. Compared with the same period in 2016, protests during the anthem had occurred much less frequently through the season’s first two weeks. The brief spike in demonstrations last week was directly attributable to what Trump said.

The disproportionately negative experiences that people of color have with law enforcement, however, remain a major problem. That’s a big part of what Kaepernick has talked about. That must not be forgotten, the Bills’ Wright said.

“Why would you just do something once and not keep following through on it when there’s so much that has to be done?” the veteran cornerback said. “For me, and for other guys, all of it wasn’t about Trump and what he said. It’s bigger than what Trump said. It’s much bigger than that.

“But I don’t judge people. Other people are going to do what they do. And if they want to stop … that’s up to them. But I know what’s important to me. I know why [he knelt]. I know I have to stay true to myself. I have to do what I think is right to try to make a difference. And some people want you to stop. That’s why you can’t.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.