Packers set the example in response to National Anthem issue

GREEN BAY, WI – SEPTEMBER 24: Aaron Rodgers

“Love over hate and unity over division.”

That’s what quarterback Aaron Rodgers said the Green Bay Packers were trying to convey when they linked arms during the National Anthem last Thursday night.

After President Donald Trump made comments at a rally last week that NFL owners should fire players who kneel or take part in protests during the National Anthem, players of nearly every team that played Sunday responded with some form of protest.

For the Packers home game against Cincinnati, the majority of players linked arms while standing during the anthem, while three players – Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks, and Kevin King – sat on the bench. Four days later, at home for their Thursday Night Football matchup against Chicago, Packers players, coaches, and staff all linked arms for the National Anthem – a demonstration of unity in which fan involvement was invited.

In a statement, Packers CEO Mark Murphy called the President Trump’s comments “divisive and offensive.” Anyone who’s been on social media over the past week or so undoubtedly can bear witness to the immense divide over the president’s statements. But the Packers used this past week to come together through discussion, talking about the issues that sparked the anthem protest movement in the first place – racial inequality.

As is the case with most sports teams, Green Bay’s locker room is filled with guys of different backgrounds. They chose to have tough conversations about tough issues so that they each can have a better understanding of each other.

Jordy Nelson acknowledged during a locker room interview the talks were beneficial and educational for him:

“I’ve had conversations with my family and other friends and family back in Kansas, because I don’t think they truly know what’s going on. It’s just great to open that conversation up. That’s what a lot of these guys are asking to do. That’s been great about talking to my teammates about things and opening my eyes. Growing up in rural Kansas and now in Wisconsin, I don’t see it. But just because I don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So, the conversation’s great. If you agree or disagree, there’s nothing wrong with having a conversation. Hopefully people can move on from the anthem and the flag because that’s not what it’s ever been about. And hopefully we can continue with the conversation. It’s great to learn.”

Rodgers called their team meeting “fantastic.”

“There’s been a great sense of unity, love and support in this locker room, guys coming together,” said Rodgers.

This strengthened unity is what the players wanted to display by linking arms during the National Anthem.

Head coach Mike McCarthy praised the way his players responded.

“I was proud of the players,” he said during a press conference earlier this week. “Their approach is one of a positive nature, and that’s definitely the preference. Locking arms and honoring the flag is a very good thing.”

Before Thursday’s game against the Bears, the Packers players released a statement that expressed their intent to lock arms and invited the fans in attendance to join in doing so as well.
Bennett, who was credited by Kendricks with coming up with the idea to include the fans, said there’s no longer a “bubble” for people to remain oblivious to the issues.

He echoed the team’s message of unity:

“Everyone’s a part of this. It affects all of us. This is one of the most diverse workplaces in the world. We have guys from all different types of backgrounds. We’re a walking testimony that it can be done. You can work with people who aren’t like you from different backgrounds to reach a common goal. At the end of the day, my whole goal is to unify people. If I can start small by unifying my team to understand where I’m coming from and where I’m going, then that’s a start.”

A disconnect

However, there is a disconnect between the message the team is trying to send and the perception many fans have about the National Anthem demonstrations. Many perceive the linked arms and other protests as a show of disrespect toward the flag and the military.

“The messaging of this unfortunately needs to continue to be redirected, I think. It’s never been about the National Anthem, it’s never been about the military,” Rodgers said after Thursday’s game, according to the Packers official website.

“We’re all patriotic in the locker room, we love our troops. This is about something bigger than that – an invitation to show unity in the face of some divisiveness from the top in this country. And I’m proud of our guys. This has been a galvanizing situation for us.”

It’s a misconception that goes back to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who began the movement last season. Kaepernick, now without a job in the league, has received great backlash for his anthem protests. However, Kaepernick said early on that it was not about the military or the flag.

“The media painted this as ‘I’m anti-American, anti-men-and-women of the military’ and that’s not the case at all,” said Kaepernick last year, according to the USA Today. “I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put their selves in harm’s way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee, so I have the utmost respect for them.”

Kaepernick began his protests by sitting during the anthem, but after a long discussion with former player and Green Beret Nate Boyer, he adjusted his protest to the form of taking a knee to show respect for the military.

Earlier this week, Bennett said the rhetoric was changed to be about the flag instead of the real issues.

“It was never about that. If you look at the message, nobody’s ever said anything negative about veterans or the military or anything like that,” he said. “I think people are trying to avoid the conversation by changing the conversation.”

Rodgers said he doesn’t understand the hate on social media over the team’s display of unity.

“It’s never been about the military or our men and women in uniform. We love and support them. This is about unity,” he said.

“This is about equality and love and growing together as a society, and starting a conversation about something that might be a little uncomfortable for people. But we have to come together to talk about these things and grow as a community, as a connected group of individuals in our society.”

Whether or not one believes the team’s message or even agrees with the issues, there is not one person that can deny that a massive disconnect currently that exists in our society. The only way to close the gap is through civil and open conversation.

The Packers made this week an opportunity to do that as a team and it’s brought them closer than ever. They hope fans will also take steps to follow in their path.

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