Thursday night marked the first full slate of NFL preseason games, as well as the litmus test for what could be one of the most contentious seasons in the league’s history. The offseason was dominated by talk of how the league and its teams might discipline players who choose to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality, an issue President Trump has long been “working overtime” to amplify. On Thursday, Miami Dolphins wide receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson both knelt during the anthem prior their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while several other players found alternate ways to protest. Trump was quick to chime in on Twitter Friday morning, writing that players should “be happy” and “be cool,” while alleging that most of them are “unable to define” what they are protesting.
The NFL players are at it again – taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem. Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their “outrage” at something that most of them are unable to define. They make a fortune doing what they love……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2018
…..Be happy, be cool! A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest. Most of that money goes to the players anyway. Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2018
“When I’m on a knee, most of the time I’m praying, and thank God for having Albert next to me,” Stills said after the game, according to ESPN. “Being a part of this protest hasn’t been easy. I thought I was going to be by myself out there. Today I had an angel with me with Albert being out there. I’m grateful he sees what’s happening, and he wants to do something about it as well.”
Stills and Wilson were joined in protest by Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn, who stood with his right fist in the air as the anthem played. “As a black man in this world, I’ve got an obligation to raise awareness,” Quinn said. “If no one wants to live in unity, that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”
The Dolphins weren’t the only team to protest Thursday night. Jacksonville Jaguars players Telvin Smith, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Fournette and TJ Yeldon all remained in the locker room while the anthem played prior to their game against the New Orleans Saints. “I love my team,” Smith said after the game. “I’m dedicated to my teammates and that’s what we’re talking about. I did what I did. It was love. I hope people see it and respect it. I respect views. I love the military. Wore my Salute to Service cleats today. It’s love and we’re just going to move forward, and move forward in the preseason.”
On the West Coast, Branden Jackson, Quinton Jefferson and Duane Brown of the Seattle Seahawks all ran off the field prior to the anthem being played before their game against the Indianapolis Colts. “We all met, and everyone was clear on my decision,” said Brown, who along with Jefferson intends to head to the tunnel when the anthem is played for the rest of the season. “Everyone understands and supports it. We all have different realities in this country, and they understand mine and my perspective. We’re fine. We’re all on good terms.”
For the past two years, President Trump has weaponized player protests as a way to rile up his base, regularly castigating kneelers on Twitter and at his campaign rallies. “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!’,” the president said at a rally last September. A month earlier, Vice President Mike Pence attended a Colts game in Indianapolis, but left after witnessing players protest during the anthem, saying later that he doesn’t “think it’s too much” to ask players to stand.
In May, the NFL caved to pressure from the president when owners unanimously approved a policy that would require players to stand if they are on the field while the national anthem is played, while also allowing them to remain in the locker room if they wish. If a player were to violate the rule, their team would be subject to a fine from the league. Trump criticized the rule as too soft while suggesting that players who don’t want to stand “shouldn’t be in the country.”
"You have to stand proudly for the National Anthem. You shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there. Maybe they shouldn't be in the country…the NFL owners did the right thing" -President @realDonaldTrump pic.twitter.com/bt36t4EX5u
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) May 24, 2018
Teams responded to the new policy in various ways. New York Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said he wouldn’t discourage players from kneeling, and that he would pay any league fines resulting from a violation of the rule. In July, the Miami Dolphins drafted their own team policy around “Proper Anthem Conduct” that provided room for fines or suspensions if players refused to comply. The backlash grew so intense that the the NFL decided to put the league-wide policy on hold until it could work out an agreement with the players’ association. Trump was not pleased.
The NFL National Anthem Debate is alive and well again – can’t believe it! Isn’t it in contract that players must stand at attention, hand on heart? The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand. First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 20, 2018
A few days after Trump’s tweet, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones announced he was instituting his own team policy that players must stand on the field during the anthem. Jones’s son, Stephen, an executive with the team, implied that the players who don’t stand could be cut. “If they want to be a Dallas Cowboy,” then they will stand, he told a Dallas radio station. Trump gave the elder Jones a nice pat on the back. “Way to go Jerry,” the president tweeted.
Despite the policy still being on hold until the NFL can come to an agreement with the NFLPA, the league made it clear on Thursday night that it expects players to stand. “There has been no change in the NFL’s policy regarding the national anthem,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. “The anthem will continue to be played before every game, and all player and non-player personnel on the field at that time are expected to stand during the presentation of the flag and performance of the anthem. Personnel who do not wish to do so can choose to remain in the locker room. We remain committed to working with the players to identify solutions and to continue making progress on important social issues affecting our communities.”
The protests Thursday night do not bode well for the NFL, which, under the leadership of Commissioner Roger Goodell, has consistently bungled high-profile policy decisions. President Trump’s involvement only makes the anthem issue — which will intensify once the regular season starts — more difficult to manage. As he was quick to do on Friday morning, Trump is likely to provide a running commentary as the season progresses, and he could be even more engaged this year than he was in 2017. With the Mueller investigation closing in around him, railing against “disrespectful” football players is a convenient, race-baiting refuge in which he can easily ignite his base.