A National Football League season that's largely been defined by what happens before kickoff rather than once the games begin will enter a delicate new phase this weekend.
Players who have protested social issues, racial inequality, police brutality and profane criticism from President Trump must now decide whether to continue taking a stand (or a knee) during the pre-game playing of the national anthem even while the NFL explicitly honors veterans, active duty military members and their families during its annual "Salute To Service" celebration.
“It’s never been about the military. It’s never been about the flag,” Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has raised a fist during the playing of the anthem since last season, told USA TODAY Sports when asked about the ongoing protests. “Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can continue to protest and draw awareness to social injustices while still honoring those who have served for us.”
Jenkins, who often shakes hands with service members and first responders following the anthem on game days and acknowledged the “sensitive timing” around Veterans Day, added: “Most of the guys, including myself, who have protested and demonstrated either have family members or know people who are in the service, do a lot for those people and honor those people. Our demonstrations don’t change that.”
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, the son of a police officer, is another one of the league’s most outspoken stars and has worked with Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Seattle mayor Ed Murray in an attempt to improve police training and tactics.
Like Jenkins, Baldwin is supportive of the military but also plans to keep using his platform to advance his social causes.
“We're going to continue to do what we have done, continue to push the message that this is not about our military. This is not about flag, it's not about disrespect. There is no disrespect,” Baldwin told USA TODAY Sports. “It's about bringing awareness to inequality and injustice in our society, and having a chance to effect change when it comes to those topics.
“They can hijack (the message) all they want to, but the truth of the matter is the only thing we care about is doing the right things for the right reasons.
“If we piss off the people who think it’s disrespectful, or we piss off the people who think we aren't doing enough, so be it. But we're going to do the right thing for the right reasons.”
It's a complex conundrum.
Many players believe that some form of protest during the anthem is the most effective way to leverage their platform and draw attention to their message. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited the movement after he was seen sitting on the bench during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner during the 2016 preseason. He subsequently took a knee on the sideline during the anthem for most of last year. However from the beginning, he was careful to explain his actions were not intended as an affront to the military.
Regardless, fans, Trump and others have accused protesting players of being unpatriotic, and the league has received significant blowback politically, from sponsors and ticket holders.
But the NFL’s ties to the military run deep. It’s a partner of the Pat Tillman Foundation, TAPS, Wounded Warrior Project and the USO, a relationship that extends more than five decades. Since 2011, more than $17 million has been raised through its Salute to Service program in order to support its non-profit military partners. The NFL doesn’t profit from money raised by the sale of camouflaged-patterned team gear on its website and in stadium retail stores, instead sending the proceeds back to its partners.
Atlanta Falcons guard Ben Garland, an Air Force Academy graduate who still serves as the executive officer of the Colorado Air National Guard, is proud of his team’s outreach program, which has included training with former Navy SEALs but also makes a concerted effort to actively engage military members and families, including an initiative by coach Dan Quinn to put the initials of a fallen serviceman on each player’s helmet during Salute to Service.
“It puts everything into perspective,” Garland, who’s lost friends in battle, told USA TODAY Sports. “These people have done the ultimate sacrifice in order to allow us to play this game.
“All players, especially with our team, there’s always been a huge respect for the military and services,” Garland continued. “I think the Falcons do more for the military than I’ve seen any team ever do. We’re constantly having guys out from Fort Hood (Texas) and all over Georgia as well as Alabama coming to our practices, and we’re taking care of them and supporting them.”
He added that Atlanta players who have protested are just as supportive of the franchise’s military initiatives.
“We had a couple guys take a knee during the protest. I know for a fact they have huge respect for the military and even talked about (the protests) with the team, and it’s not about that — it’s a freedom of speech thing.
“Whether that’s the right time or manner, they have that freedom to do so — that’s what some of these military members are protecting, that freedom of speech that they have.”
The Falcons and every other NFL team will be honoring active and retired military members at a home game this month, and several teams have benefits and public appearances set up in their respective communities throughout November.
However the optics obviously won’t be ideal if some players are kneeling or sitting on the bench a few yards away from servicemen and women who have potentially been wounded or lost colleagues in the country’s ongoing conflicts abroad.
But the NFL isn’t publicly changing its position on pre-game protests despite the potential for awkwardness and more public anger.
“The commissioner has said that he believes everyone should stand for the National Anthem at all of our games. This is true for all preseason, regular and postseason games,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to USA TODAY Sports.
That doesn’t mean teams won’t weigh in with their players. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston told USA TODAY Sports that team chairman and CEO Clark Hunt has asked that his players refrain from any kind of protest during the Salute to Service celebrations.
“Hunt came and talked to us. We were cool about it,” said Houston. “We’re here to play football. We weren’t trying to make it bigger than what it was. It’s a game of football. If you have a chance, then speak about it, but this time they asked us not to do it, so it was no problem.”
And even though Baldwin and Jenkins have been at the forefront of player activism, they’re also assuming a leading role in celebrating veterans. They, along with Eagles defensive end Chris Long and Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker, will be featured in a Salute to Service public service announcement — it was scheduled to debut during Thursday night’s Jets-Bills game — in order to thank service members while discussing their involvement with the military.
Jacksonville Jaguars defensive lineman Malik Jackson provided a unique perspective to the whole dilemma.
The Jags and Baltimore Ravens were the first teams to play following Trump’s initial outburst at a rally in Alabama on Sept. 22. Both clubs had players take knees during the anthem before they faced off in London two days later. Jackson said the Jags returned to a “firestorm” in Jacksonville, which has a heavy military demographic, and saw “a lot of extra empty seats” at their next home game. The Jaguars later apologized for their demonstration.
Jackson generously gives his money and time to support militarily focused events in the Jacksonville community. Yet he’s also plugged into their issues, even suggesting some players protest on behalf of the military.
“My personal opinion, I think people will relax on taking a knee this month because of its significance,” Jackson told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s an interesting point of view.
“But you have to understand we’re also (protesting) these VA hospitals and the attention they need to give to these servicemen and women. For too long they come back, and they don’t get attention. We need to help these guys, too.
“We’re trying to put a light on a lot of things.”
Contributing: Jarrett Bell, Lindsay H. Jones, Mike Jones; Martin Frank, The Wilmington News Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis