While it’s not clear what the 2020 NFL season will look like — or if one can be played safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic — what is clear is if games are played, players will demonstrate to protest police brutality and racial injustice.
That might mean taking a knee during the national anthem, as Colin Kaepernick first did in 2016. It might mean raising a fist during the national anthem, as current Bears outside linebacker Robert Quinn previously did with the Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins.
It might mean something different entirely — over in England, player names on jerseys in the Premier League were replaced with “Black Lives Matter” upon the league’s re-start this week.
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Matt Nagy has been asked multiple times if he’ll support players kneeling in protest of police brutality and racial injustice during the anthem, or just generally demonstrating in some way on gameday. He’s declined to directly offer unequivocal support — as Bill O’Brien of the Houston Texans and Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals, among others, have — but it’d be out of character for him to not back his players.
Nagy, though, has preached unity in relation to protests during the anthem.
“Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a feeling and we come together and do it united,” Nagy said. “That's just what we believe in.”
To be clear, Nagy said this month there haven’t yet been team-wide discussions about how players hope to continue to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice against the Black community. He’s going to defer to his players to come up with a plan, and then I’d expect him to support whatever that plan is.
A gameday protest against police brutality and racial injustice should never — ever — cost someone his job again. It’s an indelible stain on the NFL that it did in the first place.
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But just because Nagy wants unity doesn’t mean every Bears player has to do the same thing, whether it's during the anthem or otherwise. Current defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano preached unity back in 2017, when he was the coach of the Indianapolis Colts and had a number of players kneel — while locking arms with teammates who were not — to protest police brutality and racial injustice during the national anthem.
“We had a discussion about it and I’m really proud of our guys and I’m proud of our football team,” Pagano said then. “I’m proud of their commitment and their compassion for this game, for the horseshoe, not only on the field but off the field. We wanted to be unified and we talk about us, unity over self all of the time and we wanted to be together on this thing.”
But former Colts cornerback Antonio Cromartie told Bleacher Report last year he felt he was cut in 2016 because he knelt during the national anthem against the wishes of Pagano and the organization.
“We’re in a team meeting room, and coach Pagano gets up and says, ‘Look, guys, I know you all wanna do something. I don’t want you guys taking a knee,’” Cromartie said. “… He’s like, ‘Well, guys, look. When we go on the football field, it’s about football.”
Cromartie took a knee in Weeks 3 and 4, and was released after Week 4 of the 2016 season. He was 32 at the time and his play had declined, but it’d also be unfair to completely dismiss his claims given how the NFL tacitly banned Kaepernick from the league for his peaceful demonstration against police brutality and racial injustice.
Pagano, this week, notably said: “We've all done a ton of listening and learning. What I know today compared to what I knew back then, my eyes are opened up, my ears are opened up. I think we're all learning a great deal (with) exactly what was going on and those kind of things.”
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NFL teams — specifically, owners — still have to follow through on actually supporting players who demonstrate on gamedays. Far too many owners have been conspicuously silent over the last few weeks — though Bears chairman George McCaskey did put out one of the league’s stronger statements following the murder of George Floyd, and also filmed a video with ex-Bears linebacker Sam Acho.
The Bears, too, joined a number of pro sports teams in closing their offices in observation of Juneteenth, and added the celebration of slavery’s end in the United States to their holiday calendar.
But from McCaskey to Nagy, it does sound like the Bears will support players (like safety Jordan Lucas) who decide to protest in some way before, during or after games. It shouldn’t have taken this long — and it shouldn’t have cost Kaepernick his career — for NFL teams to support peaceful protests, but it does feel like we’ve finally reached the point where doing so won’t jeopardize a player’s career. Hopefully.
"Just the conversations that we've had that coach has orchestrated and made available to all of us, our players, our coaches, the entire organization, all those kinds of things — whatever comes to be, our guys know that coach Nagy has their back,” Pagano said. “They've got 100 percent of his support. They know the McCaskeys do, and everybody in that organization, (general manager Ryan Pace), everybody. They've got full support.
“We're going to do whatever we can do to help this fight and this cause, not let the flames burn out. Do whatever we can do to help.”
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