On Sunday, the Bears became patriots.
An organization that usually recoils from controversy, risk or anything that might carry a future price tag watched many of its players lock arms in solidarity during the national anthem at Soldier Field. Those players had finally crossed a line, shoved by a U.S. president who apparently doesn’t know what freedom means.
President Donald Trump’s scathing comments about athletes who kneel in protest during the anthem induced a huge response in the sports world, pushing those who had stood on the sidelines into activists. During a Friday rally in Huntsville, Alabama, Trump said NFL owners should fire players for disrespecting the American flag.
Calling any player who kneels during the national anthem a “son of a bitch,’’ as Trump did, and doing it in Alabama, as Trump did, is beyond code for “African-American.’’ If he had said “uppity,’’ he wouldn’t have been any clearer.
“Disrespectful, man,’’ Bears defensive back Sherrick McManis said. “I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s something we tolerate as a team, nor does the NFL.’’
So the Bears, who had stayed quiet during Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 anthem protests and subsequent protests by other players, locked arms Sunday. The line included coach John Fox.
“As Americans, you should be able to say what you want to say,’’ linebacker Christian Jones said. “That’s what freedom of speech means. We have a right to do that. Apparently, [Trump] didn’t get that memo.’’
Almost all of the Steelers, the Bears’ opponents Sunday, stayed in the tunnel leading to the field during the anthem as their own statement. Pittsburgh offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, an Army veteran, stood with his hand over his heart outside the tunnel.
Trump tweeted Sunday that locking arms wasn’t disrespectful to the flag but that kneeling was. It’s a distinction that escapes me. Players across the league protested in various forms Sunday, with a common theme: There are inequities in American society, and a divisive commander-in-chief certainly isn’t helping. Kneeling, raising a fist or locking arms all said the same thing.
“There are obviously issues that are going on in our country, and I think we did the right thing [Sunday],’’ guard Kyle Long said. “Moving forward, just trying to make this place a better world to live in.’’
After the Bears’ upset victory in overtime Sunday, players made it a point to say that they support the military. They didn’t have to, but I understand why they did. How one regards the anthem has become a test for whether one supports our troops. But the anthem isn’t the property of the military, nor does the singing of it honor soldiers more than it does anyone else.
To those who say that kneeling during the anthem is an insult to servicemen, past and present, please stop. What the players did Sunday honors those soldiers more than the national anthem ever has. It’s called freedom. Freedom of speech means being able to say what you want without government censorship, no matter how unpopular your views are. Our soldiers died for the right for anyone and everyone to speak up.
Bemoaning that the anthem has been hijacked by politics ignores the fact that the anthem was hijacked a long time ago by sports teams that want to get points for patriotism. That certainly includes the Bears organization. Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan, who spearheaded the effort to lock arms Sunday, said team chairman George McCaskey was gracious Saturday while meeting with the team on the issue, even if he would have preferred they not protest.
“He said his piece,’’ Trevathan said. “He said he wouldn’t advise it, but if we do something [do it] together because we are a team. We are a family. I was so glad that everybody was with it.’’
Trevathan said the Bears had discussed kneeling during the anthem but decided in favor of something that seemed more unified.
“We’re a team,’’ Long said. “We’re together. We’re empathetic toward each other’s issues, and this team does a great job of putting ourselves in other’s shoes. It’s not something that’s hush-hush. We talk about it in the locker room. We have guys who are open about how they feel, and we have guys who are respectful about other people’s opinions. I feel like [Sunday] just showed that we’re a unit, a cohesive unit.’’
They are. They showed, together, that they understand what America is all about. They did what patriots do. They exercised their freedom. So did players all around the NFL.
“Nonviolent protest is as American as it gets,’’ Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
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