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As NFL protest movement shifts, neutrality is no longer an option

L.A. Rams’ Todd Gurley, Mark Barron and Robert Quinn take a stand in their own way

Todd Gurley was a 17-year-old high school star in February 2012 when Colin Kaepernick led San Francisco to the Super Bowl.

Robert Quinn was a senior at the University of North Carolina, and Mark Barron had completed a stellar career at the University of Alabama and was drafted by Tampa Bay.

Five years later, Gurley, Quinn and Baron are teammates on the NFL’s hottest team. Headed into Week 10 against the Houston Texans, the Los Angeles Rams are 6-2, off to their best start in 16 years.

Gurley is having a monster season thus far. Linebackers Barron and Quinn anchor a stellar Rams defense.

But all the accomplishments on the field have been tempered, if not eclipsed, by the league protests. The wave of protests started with Kaepernick, who sat, and later knelt, during the national anthem during the 2016 season. Kaepernick became a free agent after the 2016 season and remains unemployed, despite a rash of injuries to starting quarterbacks.

Depending on whom you ask, Kaepernick’s protest has affected ratings and alienated some fans. But it has energized players as never before and, at minimum, removed them from the neutral zone. The protests have made it impossible, especially for African-American players, to wrap themselves in a cloak of neutrality or hide behind the “I just play football” mentality to which many, since high school, have been conditioned.

Whether players kneel, stand, lock arms or do nothing, most find themselves having to explain their actions — or inaction — to their respective circle of friends and family.

Gurley, in his third NFL season, has chosen to stand.

“Obviously, people come up and ask you why don’t you kneel,” Gurley told me earlier this week. “I say, I’ve been standing my whole time. I respect Kaepernick, but that’s what he did. He’s definitely a very brave individual to be able to do what he did, knowing the consequences of everything.”

Like many players in the NFL and NBA, Gurley, who was born in Baltimore and raised in North Carolina, identified with the issues Kaepernick highlighted. Many players have been dealing with issues of police misconduct and brutality for much of their lives, directly or as up-close witnesses.

These pro players are the fortunate ones. They’re the ones who possessed physical gifts that made them valuable commodities for sports programs, which in turn gave them safe passage and coverage.

“None of this is new to any of us,” Gurley said, referring to issues revolving around the police. “We’ve been dealing with this our whole lives. Being African-American, growing up in low-income households, we see this every day.”

Gurley reacted to criticism of protesting players, from fans all the way to the White House.

“People are going to say stuff every day. You can’t let that bother you,” he said. “You know what you stand for, you know who you are as a person.” He added: “You can’t get mad with a person because of what they believe. You don’t know what they have been through, their personal experiences growing up.”

I asked Gurley, who left the University of Georgia after three seasons, how the Kaepernick protest has changed him, or has it?

“I think it’s helped everybody mature a lot,” he said.

The intense scrutiny that has accompanied this unprecedented movement has forced players to think before they speak about their feelings on social justice issues. “Media is a big part of being in the NFL,” he said. “Being in professional sports, you’ve got to be able to react fast. The questions are coming fast, and you have to have answers, and if you don’t have answers, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s against this, or he’s for this.’ You grow up. You learn things. At the end of the day, speak your mind.”

Gurley’s teammate, Quinn, has chosen action over words. Quinn is the only Rams player who continues to demonstrate. He raises his fist during the playing of the national anthem. Punter Johnny Hekker has been by his side, placing his hand on Quinn’s shoulder each game.

“It first started with Kaepernick. Once, he began the movement over unjustified police brutality against black folk,” Quinn said. “I never wanted to be a distraction to my team, but I’m going to stand for what I believe in, no matter what anyone says.”

Quinn said he also raises his fist as a call for African-Americans to get our respective acts together. “Black people need to unite as a community,” he said. “Before we point a finger at someone else, we’ve got to fix ourselves.

“But we need to be strong in what we believe in, no matter the circumstance, because it’s never been easy since we’ve been in America.”

Everyone who has been touched by the Kaepernick protest has had to find a way to balance protest with individual and team performance. How to make a statement, for example, without being a distraction.

“When you come to the practice facility or to the stadium for a game, you lock in on your opponent,” Quinn said. “I’m a football player. I don’t want to be a distraction to our team. But we are people first before we are players.

“I want to raise awareness of what’s going on in America.”

Quinn’s teammate, linebacker Mark Barron, said mission accomplished.

Barron, who played for Nick Saban at the University of Alabama, stands during the national anthem. He said he felt that Kaepernick achieved his mission.

“He set out to do something, and he got that done,” Barron told me Sunday. “The goal was to bring awareness to the situation. Now there are conversations going on. Now it’s just a matter of finding solutions, finding action to get these things corrected. But hats off to Kaepernick.”

If Colin Kaepernick never throws another pass in the National Football League, his presence will be felt for decades. But he should be given the opportunity to throw that pass. Many players have become more vocal and focused on the injustice of Kaepernick being locked out.

“At the end of the day, I have great respect for him,” Gurley said, referring to Kaepernick. “He’s a great quarterback, definitely.

“He should be a quarterback in this league.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.