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Suddenly, football doesn't seem all that important as NFL players fight back

Eight underdogs won yesterday but the action before the games was more important than anything in them.

The Jags gave a glimpse of what was to come yesterday.
The Jags gave a glimpse of what was to come yesterday.
Image: Simon Cooper

YESTERDAY SAW underdogs going 11-3 against the spread, with eight winning straight up.

On any other NFL game week, that would be a massive story line. So too would the fact that just two undefeated teams remain and a leading contender for the Super Bowl — the Oakland Raiders — were humiliated in Sunday Night Football.

But what happened on the field this weekend pales into insignificance compared to what happened before each game.

It started in London, when more than a dozen players from both the Jaguars and Ravens took a knee during the national anthem at the first NFL International Game of the season and it spread and spread.

Each team reacted differently. Some players sat, some took a knee, one even stretched.

Some organisations linked arms, others, such as Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Seattle stayed in their dressing rooms as the anthem played.

The Raiders wanted to do the same before their loss to Washington but were told they’d be handed a 15-yard penalty for a procedural delay if they did so a majority of players sat instead.

That players would protest was expected, after all, their social media reaction to Donald Trump’s words at a rally in Alabama was swift and almost universal in its condemnation of the former reality TV star.

This time, their reaction was to the following statement:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!”

Of course, this is not the first time Trump has tried to take on the NFL.

In 1984 he bought the New Jersey Generals, part of the United States Football League and he moved what was a relatively successful spring schedule to autumn to go head-to-head with the NFL.

As outlined in the excellent 30 for 30 documentary, Small Potatoes,  several teams were immediately hamstrung as they were unable to compete directly with the local, and much-more established, NFL teams.

Even when it was obvious the autumn venture was failing, Trump was instrumental in the USFL turning down a lucrative TV deal to return to spring football because he wanted to force a merger between his league and the NFL.

By 1986, two years after he became involved, the USFL went bust, but the president’s current beef with the NFL has little to do with a failed merger.

NFL's Colin Kaepernick National Anthem Protests Trump has focused on Colin Kaepernick in the past. Source: TNS/ABACA

No, this is just a continuation of his seemingly never-ending campaign to win the election he already secured last year.

It’s worth noting that, until Trump went to Alabama, this was a protest that was largely going away. Colin Kaepernick, the man who started it all, is still without a job despite a) being more than qualified to have a starting job in the NFL and b) clearly less of a distraction than the man in the White House.

In his absence, during week two, just four players knelt or sat as the anthem played, with another two raising their fist.

In the nine 6pm games on Sunday, the Associated Press pool of reporters had the number sitting or kneeling at over 130 and more raising a fist.

They all have their individual reasons. For some it’s the issue of ex-judicial killing and police brutality, for others it’s standing up for their fellow players.

For everyone, as articulated by Michael Thomas of the Miami Dolphins here, it’s about expecting more from a man currently engaged in a war of words with a rogue nuclear power:

Source: Political Watch/YouTube

There are still those in the NFL for whom protesting during the playing of the national anthem is unfathomable.

Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe issued a statement to ESPN’s Josina Anderson:

I stand because I respect the men who died in real battle so I have the freedom to battle on the field. Paying tribute to the men and women is why I stand. But everyone these days likes to find a reason to protest and that’s their right. It’s America and you are free to speak your mind.

“I just feel it’s disrespectful to the ones who sacrificed their lives and it’s maybe the wrong platform. But like I said to each their own it’s AMERICA! The greatest country in the world and you reside here, then why do you stay. A lot worse places in the world to call home. Proud to be an American.”

Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers tackle and US army veteran, didn’t stay in the dressing room with his team-mates, choosing instead to stand for the anthem with his hand on his heart in the tunnel.

At the time of writing, no politician had publicly criticised them for not supporting their team-mates’ protests.

Falcons Lions Football Not every player chose to take a knee. Source: Duane Burleson

Of course, NFL teams have only stood for the anthem since 2009, when the league introduced the tradition. Before that, all teams waited in the dressing room as the US military was honoured by the playing of the anthem.

As NFL players took a knee in greater and great numbers, their employers backed them, not sacked them as Trump had called for.

Among those issuing strongly worded statements of their own before yesterday’s games were Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, Packers President Mark Murphy, 49ers CEO Jed York, Broncos President Joe Ellis, Chargers owner Dean Spanos, Colts owner Jim Irsay and Seahawks President Peter McLoughlin.

Washington owner Daniel Snyder, Jags owner Shad Khan and Christopher Johnson, the acting owner of the Jets — and brother of the Trump-appointed US Ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson — all linked arms with their players during the anthem.

All three owners donated money to Trump during his campaign.

Where the protest goes from here, it’s difficult to tell. For some, last week was a one-off response to Trump’s ‘son of a bitch’ comments. For others, it’s another step on the road to real change in a divided States.

The escalation of the protest has caught the imagination because NFL players have so often tried to avoid controversy, so much so that Super Bowl winning defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks, Richard Sherman, described what happened on Sunday as “life-changing”–and discussed his future efforts to ring the same social changes as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali did decades ago.

The next big game takes place Monday night. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is another Trump supporter and, to date, no Dallas player has protested during the anthem. Should that change tonight, we really are in uncharted territory.

One thing’s for sure, the man who prompted the latest round of protests is unlikely to let the issue slide.

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