EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -– Across the NFL on Sunday, more player, coach, and owner protests and demonstrations of unity occurred during the playing of the national anthem than ever before, proving that President Donald Trump can jolt reaction in a league commiserate with Colin Kaepernick.
The clever thing for Kaepernick is that Trump was merely Kaepernick’s icing. Trump just piled on. He pushed Kaepernick’s protest to a league level that Kaepernick could not do alone. Kaepernick brought the wood and the gas.
Trump struck the match.
Many people wondered why Kaepernick, who in the 2016 NFL season began to kneel for the national anthem in protest of social injustice and police brutality, had since not continued to strongly voice his opinions. Why not non-stop interviews with every national TV outlet and every major national publication? Why not continuously beat the drum?
Kaepernick did his part and then artfully decided to let it simmer. Let it marinate. Let it resonate, despite, thus far, being blackballed by the league for the 2017 NFL season.
And when Trump in a Friday night Alabama speech referred to any NFL player who kneels for the anthem as a "son of a bitch" who should be suspended or fired, Kaepernick’s course was vindicated.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell jumped in. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue pounced. Several NFL owners did too, even New England’s Robert Kraft, a Trump ally. None of them had spoken barely a word before about Kaepernick, or about any of the players’ protests. Many of the players in the league who joined in protest on Sunday had not done so previously. Trump cracked their silence. Trump sparked something in them.
Trump made Kaepernick’s message more tangible, more necessary. Trump opened eyes and minds in the league that Kaepernick could not.
You could feel it across the Miami Dolphins locker room on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Here at Dolphins-Jets, where the Dolphins lost 20-6, these Dolphins players were very aware, very awake.
"I took it that when the president of the United States equated standing up for your rights with being a ‘son of a bitch’ that he really meant that toward the African-American NFL player most," Dolphin tackle Laremy Tunsil said. "So, I didn’t stand locked in arms, I knelt today, because I wanted to make it clear that our rights to free speech and protest in America cannot be muted by the president."
Dolphins safety Michael Thomas -– who like several teammates today wore a black and white T-shirt that that read "#IMWITHKAP" –- became emotional when comparing protests in 2016 to those in 2017.
He was one of the first and the few NFL players who immediately supported Kaepernick’s movement. He said he felt alone in the organization at times, "felt the heat and the hurt."
Thomas recalled a team meeting before the Miami opener last year at Seattle where the Dolphins discussed how they wanted to handle teammates who wanted to protest like Kaepernick.
"In our team meeting last night, it was night and day to that one," Thomas said. "Totally different. There was so much more clarity of the need, so much more unity. So much more involvement. It led to brothers of all colors out there today locking arms, standing for something. What a beautiful thing. That is the type of world I want my young daughter to grow up in. I want to make sure she can look at her dad and say he tried to make a change …"
That is where Thomas began to show with deep affection what he has been feeling.
It’s what Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry described this way: "Who wants to have their child grow up in some shit like this? You don’t want it and you certainly don’t want it for your kids. I was insulted when the president said something about the privilege we NFL players all share as if they are granting us a great gift that we did not earn, that we did not work for. He acts like more than a privilege, it’s a handout. I am not going to allow that or stand for that kind of language or feeling. I’m going to use my platform for peace and love."
That word "platform" only in the last 5-10 years been used so commonly by NFL players. One of the first I heard routinely refer to it was Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. He has strong opinions about the "platforms" of each NFL player and each person placed into any position where they can be often seen and heard -– and the responsibility that comes with it to instruct, to inspire, to give.
More NFL players are embracing this "platform" idea and now here come coaches and owners and others, some who were reluctant in this league, now willing to be seen and heard once Trump went the "son of a bitch" route.
"Social issues are going to be there until the end of time …" Jets head coach Todd Bowles said. "Our team is socially aware. You have to be blind not to see what’s going on."
Yet, I haven’t heard Bowles say much about any of this until today. Trump even moved the mannequin-like Bowles off his spot, too.
I especially found Jets quarterback Josh McCown enlightening. He is 38 years old. He is in his 15th NFL season.
He was asked if he had seen a climate like the one that currently engulfs the NFL:
"No, not to this effect. It’s a different feeling when you are reading about things that are kind of more outside of the football spectrum, but are in the football spectrum now. For us, as players, and as community leaders and those things, you can’t turn a blind eye to it. It’s easy to just say, ‘I’m going to get into this box and this is my job and that’s it.’”
And then McCown talked about creating conversations that will "bear fruit" to push us toward unity.
There has been a lot of static in the air, Mark Davis, the Raiders owner, said. Recently fuel has been added to the fire, Davis said.
There are cantankerous moments in NFL history where Us vs. Them percolated, where players fought management and management fought players, where teams splintered and coaches waffled.
The NFL consensus was a Trump sack.