How President Trump's insults helped unify the NFL

LONDON – Side by side, arm linked in arm, player-owner-player.

Marcedes Lewis. Shahid Khan. Telvin Smith.

It will serve as an iconic image on a day of unprecedented protest and unity in the NFL.

Donald Trump called the mothers of players who protest during the playing of the national anthem “bitches,” demanded said protesters be summarily fired and encouraged a boycott of the National Football League. The Jacksonville Jaguars, from ownership down to the last of the roster, responded by saying no, not here, not now, not in this sport.

It’s believed Khan became the first owner to ever join a player protest, sending a powerful picture of togetherness and support in a game played all the way over in England and beamed around the globe. Before their 44-7 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, at least 14 Jaguars took a knee during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” here. At least 10 Ravens did the same.

Other players of each team who didn’t feel comfortable using the anthem as a platform made sure they showed support for the teammates who did by standing as one.

“It was a privilege,” Khan said.

Jaguars owner Shad Khan links arms with players during the national anthem before the game. (Reuters)
Jaguars owner Shad Khan links arms with players during the national anthem before the game. (Reuters)

Trump is a master of wedge issues, and like any good politician he wields them when things aren’t going his way politically. His presidency is a recurring cable TV shout-fest, the insults and intensity ramped up and nothing getting solved in the end.

Whether a few players kneel for the anthem – most often as a way of speaking up for the voiceless who have been subject to police violence – has little to no tangible impact on fans. It doesn’t get anyone a raise, or make their kid’s school better or defuse nuclear threats.

Yet many Americans are upset at what they see as disrespect for the flag, for the military, for the nation’s history. They have that right. They wonder why it needs to occur during what is otherwise entertainment. It’s fair to ask that. You can be offended by whatever you want in America. Whether Trump shares their rage or is just exploiting it, there are many who have an honest disagreement about the protests.

That includes some of the Jaguars, who are at least conflicted. Smith said he didn’t kneel because the game was being played on foreign soil and it didn’t feel right to him. Lewis said he struggles with the issue because his stepfather is a veteran with a Purple Heart.

“You can pull from both sides,” Lewis said.

Trump is feeding red meat to his base while trying to further divide America. Yet Sunday he ran into unexpected and unprecedented solidarity in the NFL. Players and owners and coaches generally feud over everything – from rules to investigations, from revenue to safety.

They all agreed on Sunday.

Here was Khan, who once cut Trump a check for $1 million for his inauguration fund, calling the president’s comments “contentious and divisive.” Here was Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who came to America at age 16, worked for $1.20 an hour washing dishes, put himself through college and built a billion-dollar automotive manufacturing empire, walking into a pregame meeting with the Jaguars captains and stunning them by saying, I’m walking out with you, I’m standing with you.

“He’s a great owner,” Smith said. “But that took it to a level of him being a great man. I just have so much respect.”

If Trump wants owners to fire the players, then here was an owner reaffirming his willingness to allow his employees to express themselves on the job. That is the owners’ right, of course. Big government trying to dictate the terms of personal employment deals used to be considered outrageous. If Trump wants the league to turn on itself, here were very different people coming to the same conclusion, that no matter their differences of opinion, intelligent, respectful discussion should prevail over profane rants.

“Our team and the National Football League reflects our nation, with diversity coming in many forms – race, faith, our views and our goals,” Khan said. “We have a lot of work to do, and we can do it, but the comments by the President make it harder. That’s why it was important for us, and personally for me, to show the world that even if we may differ at times, we can and should be united in the effort to become better as people and a nation.”

This was the first game since Trump took up the issue and began basking in the easy applause of bashing rich football players. He drew condemnation from commissioner Roger Goodell, union executive director DeMaurice Smith, coaches, players and owners, including some of his friends, such as Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, who said he was “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s comments and tweets.

Perhaps most striking, though, was the thoughtful tone that players here – and across the league – took in discussing the issue. There was little to no name-calling. There was acknowledgement of differing opinions. There were personal stories. There was anger and emotion expressed in a calm, thoughtful manner. The players preferred context and reason to cap-locked tweets.

“I don’t know the president as a man just like he doesn’t know us as men,” said the Jaguars’ A.J. Bouye. “What you say about us, disrespecting our moms, I lost my mom to cancer. My stepmom, I know she isn’t what he’s calling her. She got a doctorate from Ohio State.”

Mainly, people listened to one another. Both the Ravens and Jaguars said it wouldn’t be right to tell their teammates they needed to stand or kneel, that every opinion mattered, that, as Lewis put it, this is “a touchy subject.” Positions were held on all sides of this, group chats and hotel hallway discussions taking place across the weekend.

What Trump made this about, however, was no longer protesting a political cause, but the mere right to protest, which the NFL allows. It was seen as a broadside attack on the players, a disrespect to them and their mothers and a slap at the owners for trusting their guys to speak for themselves.

So on one team, in one game, the first of many on this NFL Sunday, they marched out of a meeting together, marched on the field together, and linked arms together to support those who chose to kneel.

Players and coaches. Old and young. Black and white. Even the owner.

“Incredible,” Blake Bortles said.

“A great thing,” coach Doug Marrone said.

“Honored,” Shad Khan said.

“Leading from the front,” Marcedes Lewis said.

If Donald Trump wanted to rip these organizations apart, here in one clear, compelling image – player-owner-player – was the united response of a united group of men from the United States of America.