The national anthem protest-and-criticism cycle consumed much of the NFL’s off-field conversation over the past year. Now it’s headed inside the white lines.
Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert announced on Twitter that he’ll be standing for the national anthem; not only that, he’ll be honoring a member of the U.S. military on his cleats every game, starting with former NFL player and U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman:
— Tyler Eifert (@tylereifert) September 9, 2017
Eifert explained his motivations in greater detail in an article on Medium, indicating his reasons for standing just as Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett and others have laid out reasons for kneeling or sitting during the national anthem: “I am not questioning anyone’s reasons or rights to protest, but instead the method,” Eifert wrote. “This entire protest about raising awareness for racial inequality has gotten lost in the media and turned into a debate about whether to sit or stand for the national anthem.”
Eifert pointed to the military, including a cousin serving in the Air Force, as his motivation. “These people are why I am standing,” he wrote, “because they gave me and everyone else the chance to have freedom and earn a living playing a sport I love.”
He noted that he will be writing the name of a member of the military on his cleats for every game this season, starting with Tillman. He also noted that he will support the K9s for Warriors charity to help soldiers deal with lingering effects of PTSD.
“In this world of turmoil, I still believe in one thing strongly and that’s the flag and everything our country was built on,” Eifert wrote. “I respect my fellow players’ right to kneel during the national anthem but I hope everyone now knows why I stand, and respects that as well.”
Tillman, a former safety for the Arizona Cardinals, enlisted in 2002 following the Sept. 11 attacks, turning down a multimillion-dollar contract offer from Arizona to do so. Tillman, who completed Ranger training, was killed two years later by friendly fire. A coverup of the specific circumstances Tillman’s death, by both platoon members on the ground and officials higher up the command chain, resulted in a years-long investigation that included Congressional hearings.
Tillman’s family hasn’t yet spoken publicly on Eifert’s tribute. However, earlier this year, his wife Marie spoke about patriotism and the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants, invoking Tillman’s concept of patriotism as she did so.
“Pat’s decision [to quit the NFL and join the Army] had everything to do with the principles the United States stands for: freedom, justice, and democracy,” she wrote in The Atlantic. “He went to war even though he disagreed personally with the campaign in Iraq, and made clear that he didn’t want his celebrity to make him a poster boy for the conflict. Pat once explained that because he loved his country, he felt he must question it.”
That last sentence is a bit of nuance all too often lost in the current with-us-or-against-us atmosphere around the anthem debate.
Eifert’s stance poses a bit of a test for fans who have criticized the protests of Kaepernick and others. In blasting national anthem protesters, many fans have said they want politics out of their sports; that rationale would apply to Eifert’s gesture just as much as Kaepernick’s.
So will the “stick to sports” crowd tear into Eifert just as loudly and forcefully as they have Kaepernick? Or will Eifert draw heat from players, and their allies, who have chosen to protest? We’ll see soon enough.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.