The first player shown in the video is Josh Norman. The shot is framed in close to his face, bringing you to stare into his brown eyes as he smudges eye-black across his right cheek.
Later, there’s archive footage of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals safety who left his NFL career to enlist in the Army after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and who became an opponent of the Iraq war between that time and the day he was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire in 2004.
There’s a shot of players standing on the sideline, hands over hearts, with American flags on display during the national anthem. Between 2012-2015, the Department of Defense paid the league for shows of patriotism like massive flag displays during the anthem ritual.
All that was shown in a minute-long spot the NFL aired on NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast, which happened to take place here in Washington. It was titled “Inside These Lines” and was meant as a display of unity in response to President Trump’s vitriol directed at the league and its players at a rally for a special election in Alabama over the weekend.
Stick to sports? This — a powerful and complex subset of popular culture that has always intersected with politics — is sports. The president and the fans who booed the Redskins and Raiders who knelt during the anthem Sunday might say otherwise, but players and league officials know they wield considerable influence that can be used politically.
“You’re picking on the wrong people,” Norman said after the game. “Sorry man, but I’m just being honest. I respect the position [of president], I really do. But when it gets to that point, you’re taking on 1,800 men. Grown men, they got families. And we have that ability to strike the young nation, the young people. They look up to us, so how we act is how they’re going to respond.”
Like Norman, the government also recognizes the powers of influence wielded by sports leagues and their stars.
In 2015, Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Arizona Republicans, disclosed that the Department of Defense had paid more than $9 million over the previous four years to various major sporting leagues, including more than $6 million to NFL teams, through marketing contracts centered around acts of “paid patriotism.” Would the Pentagon have spent that money if it didn’t believe in a direct connection between the sports arena and the political arena?
Norman said that given the personal nature of the president’s comments, in which he called NFL players who protest racial inequality during the national anthem “sons of [expletive]” it was impossible not to respond.
“How you stay in your lane when you’re called out directly?” Norman said.
“All this stuff that’s going on, and you’re worried about a sport? You’re worried about us? C’mon man. That’s an atrocity. Therefore if you come at us in that way, we can get political very fast.”
On Monday, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters on a conference call that the NFL would not be disciplining any teams or players for acts of protest over the weekend. There is a rule in the NFL gameday operations manual — different than the rulebook — which says players are to be on the sidelines during the anthem, but its enforcement is not mandatory.
“We also believe our players have a right to express themselves,” Lockhart said.
The Raiders, who would have preferred to stay in the locker room so as not to appear divided with some players kneeling and others standing, did have to be on the sidelines during the anthem because, on Sunday Night Football, the coin toss occurs before the anthem. On other broadcasts, the anthem takes place first so teams like the Steelers and Seahawks were able to stay inside.
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech protections from the government only. The NFL, as an employer and a private company, would have the right to discipline players for acts of protest or even release them, as the president suggested. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on ABC’s This Week that players “can do free speech on their own time.”
The NFL and its owners largely disagreed.
“I can no longer ask our team to not say something while they are in a Raider uniform,” Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN on Sunday.
The Redskins released a statement about unity at kickoff Sunday, but it did not mention the president by name. Players felt at ease to speak freely about politics after the game, though some were still stunned by the events of the weekend.
“I can’t think of words,” running back Chris Thompson said. “It’s just disappointing to hear someone say that about us. And then when we speak up about politics it’s ‘You guys should stick to sports’ but now we have politicians where I guess you could say ‘You guys need to stick to politics.’ Like I said, we’ve just got to continue to be united and not divide. We’ve just got to be a team.”
Tight end Vernon Davis expressed genuine surprise that the president would take on popular athletes who have millions of devoted fans looking up to them. Davis, relentlessly positive, still suggested a unifying approach.
“Maybe there’s a situation where every athlete from basketball to baseball to football can just have a meeting with Donald Trump and we could really talk about this thing,” Davis said. “What can we do? Because we have some of the largest platforms there is. We’re huge influences when it comes to, just, the people, right? So maybe everyone comes together.”
There were twin strands of feeling intertwined in the response from most players Sunday. The president had gone after them, their teammates and friends, and it was personal. It also served as a reminder of the power they hold as athletes to influence and to control the national conversation, so it was political too. Stick to sports is a misleading phrase. In a way, the title of the NFL’s Sunday Night Football spot was, too.
If Sunday made one thing clear, it’s that what happens inside the lines has never been separated from what goes on outside of them.