Seeing NFL players, coaches, teams and even the league itself support the idea of kneeling during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice in 2020 is uplifting and also surprising, given what happened in 2016 and 2017.
A story by Elise Jesse of WLWT, an NBC affiliate in Cincinnati, sheds light on the conflicts players had when deciding to kneel then. Owners were worried about a fan backlash. Some were even worried about what President Donald Trump would tweet.
In 2017, players were angry after Trump memorably said NFL owners should say to anyone who kneels, “Get that son of a bitch off the field.” Members of the Cincinnati Bengals wanted to take a knee at a game two days after Trump’s comment.
Owner Mike Brown “begged” them not to at a rare appearance at a team meeting.
Bengals were asked to not kneel
Jesse reported that she spoke to more than 10 players from the 2017 Bengals, many of whom did not want to be quoted on the record.
They recalled that the day before a road game at the Green Bay Packers, right after Trump’s speech, Brown spoke to the team. One player told Jesse that’s the first time the owner had done so at a Saturday meeting.
"He pretty much says, ‘I don't want you guys kneeling,’” one player told WLWT. “He said our fans will crush us.”
Another player described Brown’s tone as emotional.
“He just begged, like really begged. That was my first time seeing or hearing anything like that — very emotional,” an unnamed player told Jesse. “That was my only time seeing that it was different. The bottom line is that he was begging us, please do not kneel. He didn't want the backfire that was going to come from it."
In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the movement. By 2017 he was unsigned, and still hasn’t gotten another shot with the NFL. Former Bengals safety George Iloka said he and many other players wanted to kneel. They feared repercussion. Nobody took a knee, locking arms during the anthem instead, though Iloka spoke up to Brown at the meeting about what he felt.
"My heart was beating because he's the owner, and you already saw what happened to Kaepernick," Iloka said.
Iloka said he tried to tell Brown why he wanted to kneel, but Brown “wasn't trying to hear it.” One player told Jesse he didn’t kneel because if he did he was worried he wouldn’t get a good contract offer the following year. Other players “had the same sentiment,” according to Jesse.
The Bengals denied Brown forced players to not kneel, telling WLWT that “Mr. Brown shared with players his preference, but said he was not directing them what to do.”
Preston Brown, who joined the Bengals in 2018, was with the Buffalo Bills in 2017 and said he regretted not kneeling then.
"That's the biggest regret I have is not taking a knee that day because I was just so scared to do it,” Brown told Jesse. “I know what could happen afterwards. You have to play this role as an athlete and toe the line to make sure they still like you. I can't be all the way Black."
Bengals didn’t get support from all their teammates
This is what Black players were up against in 2016 and 2017. The NFL clearly wanted Kaepernick out of the league after he led the movement; the NFL had to settle a collusion claim with Kaepernick and his then-49ers teammate Eric Reid after a grievance was filed.
Players feared having their careers taken away, and Bengals players told Jesse there wasn’t total support from all their teammates either. Iloka talked about an informal players-run meeting that was attended by about 30 players, half Black and half white. One player said he felt the Black players wanted to kneel “and then it was the white players telling us, ‘You guys don't need to do that.’”
In 2020, we’re seeing many messages from white players saying they want to listen to their Black teammates and support the cause. That wasn’t the case a few years ago, at least in Iloka’s view.
"It's almost like saying, ‘Go be oppressed somewhere else and keep it out of my sight,’” Iloka told Jesse. “That sort of thing. So, you know it was like, I understand that you don't get how we feel and we are not asking you to join us, but just stop telling us not to."
Players, white and Black, have said they will kneel in 2020. Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien, who is white, has already said he plans to kneel with his players.
It seems this time around will be different when it comes to peaceful protests. Even if Trump is already starting to fight it already.
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