In the NFL, a show of unity from London to the U.S.
Raiders’ all-black offensive line sits during anthem in a defining moment on day of symbolism
HYATTSVILLE, Maryland — As nightfall approached Sunday, the NFL’s unprecedented show of unity was almost complete. Across a league determined to respond in solidarity, albeit not in conformity, to President Donald Trump’s rants against players who are fighting for racial equality, every team in some fashion demonstrated during the national anthem. Many players sat and knelt. Others stood together arm in arm with owners, head coaches and team executives. Fists were raised. And some teams or players stayed in the locker room or tunnel for the duration of the performances. Each individual display told the day’s collective story, which fittingly ended here, about 15 miles from the White House.
The Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins joined the rest of the NFL in pushing back against Trump, and what occurred along the visitors sideline at FedEx Field was among the defining moments in a day of symbolism. At one end of the bench, the NFL’s only all-black starting offensive line sat together. The group had discussed its response to Trump in the run-up to the day’s final game and set the tone for the entire Raiders team, which had many members sit before the Redskins’ 27-10 victory.
After a cross-country trip, the talented Raiders played poorly during their first loss in three games. There’s a lot for them to address. But led by their O-line before kickoff, the Raiders’ response to Trump’s criticism won’t be something they second-guess.
As he often does, veteran left tackle Donald Penn spoke for many in Oakland’s locker room. Players in the earlier games said that Trump’s comments motivated them to act, and the Raiders were no different. The Raiders believed they had to make a bold move after Trump blasted everyone who has protested in an effort to elevate the issues that primarily affect black and brown bodies in America.
Don’t be confused: Sunday was about defiance.
“I wish I didn’t have to do anything like that. I’ve been standing [for the anthem] all the time. But when you’re getting called out by the person who’s supposed to lead your country, you’ve got to do something,” Penn said, alluding to Trump’s divisive comments at a political rally in Huntsville, Alabama, on Sept. 22.
“I don’t think my teammates wanted to do that. It’s something we had to do. It’s getting out of hand. … We’ve got disasters going on in Florida and Puerto Rico. Houston is still trying to rebuild. And he’s worried about us doing a silent, peaceful protest?”
By directing his tirade at anyone involved in the widespread movement, Trump infuriated African-American players. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now,’ ” Trump said at the rally. “Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!”
Trump’s “son-of-a-b—-” line became a rallying cry for players, many of whom were quick to point out that the president referred to white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people.” But he cursed black men who use their national platform in an effort to improve the lives of others.
“The people in Charlottesville, he didn’t call them sons of b—-es. He didn’t say that about them,” Penn said. “We’re doing positive stuff and you want to call us out?”
Beginning Sept. 23, players in leadership positions began discussing within their teams how to best address what they heard from Trump. Although there wasn’t a centralized strategy among the 32 clubs, there was a clear sense that protests would be ratcheted up. On the Raiders, it made sense that the O-line would step out front in their fight.
Penn, center Rodney Hudson, left guard Kelechi Osemele, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Marshall Newhouse form one of the NFL’s most effective O-lines, Sunday’s performance notwithstanding. They take pride in what they’ve accomplished and understand the importance of what it means, even in 2017, for a group of black men to be considered among the best at what they do.
Trump didn’t merely disagree with black men championing issues important to the black community. He made it personal.
“I respect the military. I respect our flag. I have the utmost respect,” Penn said. “This all had to do with President Trump’s comments. This is the only reason why we did that.”
Fans who bemoan the players’ First Amendment right to protest nonetheless eagerly exercised theirs by booing as the players prepared for the anthem. “Wasn’t paying no attention to that,” Penn said. “Was in my own zone.”
The irony of Trump’s move is that, by bashing players active in the movement, he may have inspired players who weren’t politically active to become engaged in the fight beyond what occurred Sunday, which was unlike any other day in NFL history. From stadiums all over the U.S. to Wembley Stadium in London, the league entered uncharted territory.
Last season, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first to sit and then kneel to shine a light on the disproportionately negative experiences people of color have with law enforcement. Quickly, many followed Kaepernick’s lead.
The free-agent passer remains unsigned, and many players and civil rights activists believe Kaepernick has been blackballed. Protests during the anthem had occurred much less frequently through the season’s first two weeks compared with the same period in 2016. Trump changed all that.
In the game in London, many players took a knee. Jaguars owner Shad Khan locked arms with some.
Back in the U.S., 10 New Orleans Saints players sat before facing the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the Minnesota Vikings’ stadium, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans knelt and their teammates locked arms. Pick a stadium. Similar scenes played out wherever there were games.
The Raiders’ counterparts also executed a plan. Along the Redskins’ sideline, Washington owner Daniel Snyder, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural festivities, locked arms with starting cornerbacks Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland. After Washington’s second straight victory, Norman ripped Trump, telling reporters that the man who occupies the highest office in the country “is not welcome here in Washington, D.C. He’s not. Hope he don’t be around when I see him.”
Norman then looked directly into a television camera and continued. “I can say that to your face: You’re not welcome here. You picked on the wrong people.”
Over in the visitors locker room early Monday morning, Penn was done with Trump. As players hurried to dress and team attendants packed, Penn aptly summed up the mood of much of the NFL.
“I don’t really even want to talk about him [anymore],” Penn said. “I don’t want to give him that much more of my time.”
Senior writer Jerry Bembry contributed to this story.