The four NFL teams still playing football this weekend have much in common: high-scoring offenses, stout defenses and fans hungering for a championship.
What separates them, other than the New England Patriots’ five Super Bowl titles to the others’ none, is how they reacted to President Donald Trump’s attack on the NFL for allowing players to protest during the national anthem. That story eclipsed nearly everything else that happened on the field this season.
The responses of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Minnesota Vikings and the Patriots ran the gamut, from players locking arms with owners to players taking a knee or raising a fist. Plenty of players stood at attention as if this season were like any other, rather than a turning point for athlete activism in the 21st century. What they will do Sunday in the conference championship games, playing under a brighter spotlight, remains anyone’s guess, though the protests largely fizzled as the season wore on.
The owners of the teams, too, acted differently, from lining up with their players to issuing statements calling out the president to meeting with players to hear their concerns about thorny problems like police brutality toward African-Americans, one of the original motivations of the anthem demonstrations, and prison reform. Those meetings led to an announcement in December that the NFL would contribute millions of dollars to groups involved in these and other social causes.
The actions — and in some cases, the absence of actions — reflected the ways the teams and the league struggled to respond to the protests, which began in August 2016 when quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then a member of the San Francisco 49ers, did not stand for the national anthem to highlight his concern over racial discrimination and oppression in society. Kaepernick’s contract expired after the 2016 season, and he has been out of a job ever since. He has filed a grievance accusing the NFL’s owners of collusion.
While a few dozen players were still protesting at the end of this regular season, the fact that hundreds of players took on complex social issues and didn’t suffer repercussions amounted to progress for player rights in a league known for demanding that its employees subvert themselves and march in lock step, several longtime observers of the league said.
The protests “sent a message of solidarity and cohesion, and made people understand that these guys are entertaining you, but they also have thoughts and ideologies and take a stand on issues,” said Charles K. Ross, director of African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi and author of two books on African-American professional football players. “You can’t simply hide in a hole and not have an opinion on these things.”
The moment that changed everything occurred in late September, when the president attacked the NFL at a campaign rally on a Friday night in Alabama. He used a derogatory word to describe players who did not stand for the anthem and called on owners to fire them. His comments sparked a crisis at the NFL, which would be playing games less than 48 hours later.
The response from Robert K. Kraft, owner of the Patriots, was of particular interest because he considers the president a friend. He donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural activities. His coach, Bill Belichick, wrote a letter of support to Trump days before the presidential election in 2016. “You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully — beautifully,” Belichick wrote. “You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing.”
At the same time, some Patriots players refused to visit the White House last spring to celebrate their Super Bowl victory because of their opposition to the president.
After Trump’s comments, Kraft said he was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s speech, and he supported the players’ efforts to “peacefully effect social change.” In Foxborough, Massachusetts, Kraft remained out of sight while about a dozen Patriots knelt that first weekend after Trump’s comments. They were booed by their hometown fans. The next weekend, no Patriots protested.
Public opposition quickly died down in Minnesota as well. The Vikings’ owners, Zygi and Mark Wilf, waited two days before speaking out against Trump, then locked arms with their players during the national anthem. The Wilfs issued a statement that never mentioned Trump, and instead spoke of their commitment to “foster an environment that recognizes and appreciates diversity of thought and encourages using this platform in a constructive manner. Rather than make divisive statements, we believe in promoting thoughtful, inspiring conversation that unifies our communities.”
By the next weekend, the Vikings were among the dozen teams that had no players protesting.
But several members of the Jaguars continued to kneel, and Malcolm Jenkins of the Eagles played a leading role in the Players Coalition, a group of players who met regularly with owners and league officials to push the NFL to help address their concerns. Over the opposition of some owners, the league eventually agreed to provide monetary support, a victory not just for Jenkins but for the other players who continued to protest throughout the fall.
Jenkins remained outspoken. He raised his fist during the national anthem through November, then announced he was ending his protests because he was encouraged by the NFL’s pledge to donate $89 million to charities addressing issues raised by protesting players.
“That the athletes were able to take action and not have their jobs jeopardized was significant,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “It opened the door that will never be closed again.”
The response from the Jaguars was also notable because Shahid Khan is the only nonwhite team owner; he immigrated from Pakistan in 1967 and is a Muslim. His Jaguars play in a city dominated by the military. Khan also donated $1 million to the president’s inauguration, but he opposed his ban on immigration from several Muslim majority countries.
The Jaguars were the first team to play Sunday after Trump’s remarks because they were in London to face the Baltimore Ravens. Before the game, the team issued a statement, and then Khan met with several players; coach Doug Marrone; and Tom Coughlin, the former coach who advises the team. Marrone suggested that all players lock arms, though it was unclear whether some players would kneel. A few did.
When Khan joined the players on the sideline and locked arms with two team captains, a pack of photographers ran across the field to capture the moment. The photos were quickly noticed by other teams, and by the end of the day, owners across the country stood, arms locked, with their players.
After Khan got to his owners’ box, he received an email from Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner. “That was very powerful,” it read. “Thanks for your leadership. RG.”