FOXBORO – The boos and demands to “Stand up!” rained down just as the Star Spangled Banner began. The players on the Patriots sideline who knelt – the ones boos and invective was directed at – stayed down. Others stood, locking arms with teammates while others stood with their hands over their hearts.
By game’s end, everyone was on their feet. Players. Coaches. Fans. Together.
Unless they left early because of traffic and a late Patriots deficit. Or because they couldn’t bear the thought of watching an NFL game on a beautiful September Sunday because the entertainers didn’t do what they wanted them to do before the performance began.
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The whole thing’s complicated. I understand why people take offense at those who don’t stand for the anthem.
I understand why others want to deliver a symbolic message about their American experience.
I completely understand why, two days after President Trump thought it appropriate to use the phrase “son of a bitch” to refer to someone making a silent, reflective statement, many NFL players felt challenged, backed into a corner and somewhat dehumanized. The message delivered was, in essence, “Shut up and dance.”
Personally, I prefer to stick to sports. I don’t think I’m equipped to talk politics because I don’t know policy, legislation, constituencies and special interests – all the things that I define as politics – well enough to drone on at anybody.
As for sociology – which is what this is about rather than politics – I have my experiences and others have theirs. I’m trying to mow my own lawn over here. You do you. I’ll do me. As long as you don’t encroach on me doing me while you do you, I’m fine. When I’m not completely self-absorbed, a respectful exchange of ideas can make me see things in a different light.
It didn’t surprise me some people at Gillette Stadium had a visceral and vocal reaction to players kneeling. The pot was brought to a boil all weekend, the lid was just lifted and it bubbled over.
But the irony of how the afternoon played out – that Brandin Cooks, a player booing fans were screaming at to stand three hours earlier brought them to their feet with his toe-tapping last-minute touchdown – was perfectly symbolic.
Ultimately, everyone was there for the football – the players, coaches, media and fans – and in the end it was the football that brought the unified response that stood in contrast to the divided reactions in the stands and on the field before the game.
“That’s what sports is,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “That’s what sports does. That’s what makes them great. They bring out what we have in common.
“I don’t think people look at us as human,” McCourty said. “I don’t think they ever have. We’re just the entertainment. They don’t understand that there’s a human behind it. People want to shake your hand or have their picture taken with you but they don’t want to know you. That’s reality.”
Maybe. Or maybe people feel their voices aren’t heard. They don’t have a column they can write or a TV or radio show to spout off on. They don’t have the chance to demonstrate their individual feelings at their cubicle before the workday starts.
All they know is they spent $500 or more to get to and into with a belly full of steak tips and beer and they don’t need to feel like being reminded about somebody else’s societal oppression on their day off, thank you very much.
It’s not so much about who does what during the Star Spangled Banner as much as it is that a lot of people don’t appreciate the intrusion. That, and they’re tired of hearing how bad everyone else has it when it’s really no damn picnic for most people these days.
Believe me, there’s not unanimity of opinion in the Patriots locker room any more than there is in your office, home, dorm or neighborhood. Players of different races, backgrounds, economic circumstances and ways of expressing themselves are thrown in a pot together and told to work for a common goal and rely on each other.
The mish-mash of ways in which players responded during the anthem on the Patriots sideline, the reticence of some players to dip a toe in the conversation, McCourty’s opening statement at the podium and then his declining to take questions and Bill Belichick’s comment that he would “deal with that later” all seemed to indicate that the team itself is still working through how it expresses itself as a whole.
It’s complicated for them too.
But in the end, it was the football that bound them together. It was the game that left them jumping on each other and the fans standing and screaming and nobody thinking at all about who did what when the song played before the game.