A linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t like the words he says he heard coming from the NFL commissioner about standing for the national anthem in a certain way.
“My view was that nobody’s gonna tell me whether I should salute the flag,” David Meggyesy says. “It’s my decision.”
His decision was made nearly 50 years ago, only a short time after Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
“I stood on the sideline with my helmet in front of me and my head bowed,” says Meggyesy, now 75. “My thought was, I was too chicken to raise my fist in the air.”
Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest, done to raise awareness of racial inequality and police brutality, has roiled the NFL community in a significant way. But his decision not to participate in the pregame honoring of the flag isn’t wholly unprecedented in the league. Meggyesy made a similar choice, and faced similar backlash. His NFL career, which lasted seven years, ended after the 1969 season.
“It cost me my job,” he says. “They benched me.”
There are certainly differences between the two situations. Meggyesy is white and was protesting the Vietnam War along with other civil rights issues. (He had circulated an anti-war petition in the Cardinals’ locker room.)
“In my mind it was un-American,” says Meggyesy, who claims then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered players to stand in honor of the flag. “You’re going to order somebody to salute the flag?”
Beyond those differences, the Ohio-born and Syracuse-educated Meggyesy can’t help but feel a wave of familiarity. His response when he first saw Kaepernick’s protest was “a big yes, definitely a yes – very appropriate and timely and I think courageous.
“He’s clearly paying the piper at this point of his career by not being able to get a job. But when you start looking at the history of prominent athletes who’ve chosen to speak out on issues, they were drivers of positive social change.”
It’s an ongoing debate on whether Kaepernick will fall into that category. On the one hand, many followers of the sport are infuriated at the former 49ers quarterback and just as mad at media coverage that they feel is interrupting their ability to enjoy the sport. On the other hand, Kaepernick’s protest has encouraged similar demonstrations around the league, and the topics he wanted to bring attention to have found more of a spotlight than they would if he had done nothing. He has also pledged $1 million to charities.
Meggyesy also found a split reaction. After his decision, there was a banner unfurled in his home stadium suggesting that the Cards were communists. But there were teammates who supported him, he says. He went on to write “Out of Their League”, an eviscerating takedown of Rozelle and the league. The book is remembered still and in some ways rings true today, hitting topics like boosters in college football, painkiller use and race relations in the sport. It sold more than 650,000 copies in paperback alone.
“The football bosses thought they could ignore and isolate Meggyesy,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 1987, “but his book changed the way we think about the most popular spectator sport in the country.”
Yet Meggyesy says his demonstration is not anywhere near as amplified as Kaepernick’s. The league is far bigger, the media is far more extensive, and the issues are more multifaceted. Kaepernick has struck a variety of third rails, from patriotism to Black Lives Matter to the criminal justice system to police appreciation and accountability. Even his decision to wear a Fidel Castro T-shirt upset many in Florida – an entire continent away from where he played last season. And in the civil unrest last year in Charlotte, North Carolina, after the shooting of a black man named Keith Lamont Scott by police, at least one protester wore a Kaepernick jersey. Meggyesy believes Kaepernick has become a symbol of challenges and problems nationwide.
“He’s hitting a lot of nerves,” Meggyesy says. “We like to think racism is solved. ‘Oh, that was 50 years ago, we solved that one.’ ”
And to him, that helps explain why Kaepernick does not have a job. Owners and team officials don’t want to deal with these discussions. So the solution is “make it go away.”
“The NFL doesn’t want to have conversations that you and I can have comfortably,” he says. “People like you [a reporter] are going to stick a mic in their face and say, ‘What about this?’ So it’s putting the negative on the person who is trying to deal with the situation.”
Then as now, it doesn’t matter how good that person is at football. Meggyesy said one of the most trying moments for him came after his benching, when a teammate told him the team would have been better with him on the field. That ate away at his belief that the group really did come first.
“When I saw they were willing to sacrifice the success of our team, that was very wounding to me,” Meggyesy says. “That was a belief that really shattered me. It woke me up.”
He’s been an activist ever since, serving with the NFLPA for 25 years and more recently working as a union adviser on a joint study with Harvard on concussions. He now lives in Washington state and contributes to Athletes United for Peace and a group devoted to teaching the “Ideal Performance State.” Meggyesy may not be a household name to younger fans, but he’s certainly a noteworthy part of the league’s history.
And he’s a living indication that no matter how many games Kaepernick plays this season or beyond, he won’t be as silent as some might want.
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