The demonstrations that exploded after President Trump attacked NFL players who kneel for the national anthem continued into a second weekend of football on Thursday, but a new twist from the Green Bay Packers seemed to dilute the message even further.
More than 100 players and 11 team owners took part in demonstrations after Trump waded into the long-simmering controversy last Friday. After two days with no games, it fell on the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers — who faced off at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field on Thursday — to set the tone for this weekend’s games. Most Chicago and Green Bay players linked arms with their teammates for the anthem last week; Packers Kevin King, Martellus Bennett, and Lance Kendricks chose to sit.
On Tuesday, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he hoped fans attending the game would follow the team’s example and link arms during the national anthem as a sign of unity.
“This is about equality,” Rodgers told reporters. “This is about unity and love and growing together as a society, and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people. But we’ve got to come together and talk about these things and grow as a community, as a connected group of individuals in our society, and we’re going to continue to show love and unity.”
Many have complained that in the last few days the NFL has coopted and watered-down former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality. When Kaepernick started taking a knee during the summer of 2016, Rodgers defended him, saying that while he stands for the anthem “because that’s the way I feel about the flag,” he’s totally in support of teammates who don’t. “They have a battle for racial equality,” he said. “That’s what they’re trying to get a conversation started around.”
In recent days, the Packers were less clear about the meaning of standing for the anthem. Packers tight end Lance Kendricks said teammate Martellus Bennett (brother of the Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, who began protesting the anthem in August) came up with the idea of getting fans involved, and helped write a statement explaining the gesture. It said, in part:
This Thursday during the national anthem at Lambeau Field, Packers players, coaches and staff will join together with arms intertwined — connected like the threads on your favorite jersey. When we take this action, what you will see will be so much more than just a bunch of football players locking arms. The image you will see on September 28th will be one of unity. It will represent a coming together of players who want the same things that all of us do — freedom, equality, tolerance, understanding, and justice for those who have been unjustly treated, discriminated against or otherwise treated unfairly. You will see the sons of police officers, kids who grew up in military families, people who have themselves experienced injustice and discrimination firsthand, and an array of others all linking together in a display of unity.
Those of us joining arms on Thursday will be different in so many ways, but one thing that binds us together is that we are all individuals who want to help make our society, our country and our world a better place. We believe that in diversity there can be UNI-versity. Intertwined, we represent the many people who helped build this country, and we are joining together to show that we are ready to continue to build.
Let’s work together to build a society that is more fair and just.
“It kind of puts [fans] in a position where it’s like, ‘Look, you’re either going to unite with us or you’re not,’” Kendricks said of the move. “I think that’s really cool, because it puts them in a position where it’s like now we’re talking to you, so you make a decision, peacefully make a decision.”
It appeared that most fans did not choose to unite with the team. As country-music star Tyler Farr sang the anthem before Thursday’s game, the Packers and the Bears lined up with their arms linked on opposite sides of the field. The cameras focused in on some fans who did the same, but it looked like the majority were standing with their hands over their hearts. A sign displayed in the stands behind the Packers’ bench said, “Shame on the NFL. Vets stand for the flag.”
Part of the issue was likely that fans were not sure what to make of the gesture. Some teams suggested standing with linked arms was just a show of team unity, but since it only started after the president’s remarks, many interpreted it as an anti-Trump gesture. Before Thursday’s game, Rodgers said that wasn’t the Packers’ intent.
“This is not a protest, this is a unified demonstration of love and solidarity,” he told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson. “It’s a call to connect. This is about unity and love and growing together as a society and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people.”
Fans on Twitter had wildly different interpretations of what message the Packers were sending:
On Thursday, President Trump opened up a new line of attack, claiming that NFL team owners are afraid of their players. It’s unclear if that’s enough to keep the protests from fizzling out. Some players have already said they don’t intend to continue demonstrating before every game, and others seem to be coalescing around a message that only fleetingly alludes to Kaepernick’s stance against police brutality. The Denver Broncos have already released a statement saying there’s work to be done in “ALL forms of social justice,” so “Starting Sunday, we’ll be standing together.”