Nearly four years after Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, NFL tides are turning on protests during the national anthem

For years, it has been the NFL's third rail — an issue so controversial that, for a substantial portion of the league, it was all but untouchable.

When Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 as a means of protesting police brutality and racial inequality, he was met with boos at stadiums and criticism from anonymous executives. Several players and coaches stood by him. But for every public ally, there were dozens more who offered only tepid support or evasive answers, tiptoeing around the subject at every turn.

"Back when Kaepernick took a knee, it was almost kind of scary," Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Robert Woods told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "You could lose your job, you could be on the bench."

But now, that tide within the NFL appears to be turning.

As the country continues to mourn the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck, the broader NFL community has moved to embrace the causes that Kaepernick first championed nearly four years ago — as well as the method he used to raise awareness about them.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a video last week that the league would "encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest," while adding that "I personally protest with you." A handful of NFL head coaches have indicated they would support any of their players who choose to kneel during the national anthem. And players believe the atmosphere surrounding the protests, and the concerns at their core, is changing.

"In 2016, 2017 when those guys were making it about police brutality … (critics) found a way to dull down that message and divert it and make it about something else, as a way to avoid the conversation," San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told local reporters Wednesday. 

"I think this time, it’s too full-fledged. Most people are actually getting the messaging and seeing it first-hand. Nobody can turn their eyes away."

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A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted this week found that 52% of respondents support NFL players who kneel during the national anthem as a means of protesting police brutality — a whopping 24-point jump from 2016. And players who had once been noncommittal or relatively quiet on issues of social justice are now speaking up. 

Several white starting quarterbacks, for example, have addressed Floyd's death and systemic racial inequality in recent days. Rams quarterback Jared Goff talked about wanting to contribute to meaningful change. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said he's realized that "what I’ve done to this point hasn’t been good enough."

Ryan Tannehill, the Tennessee Titans' quarterback, said on a teleconference that he had been naive in how he previously viewed protesting players.

"When the kneeling first started to happen, it was a bit of a shock, I guess, because it hadn’t been done before," he said Wednesday. "I think I had to get past the fact that it wasn’t about the flag. It wasn’t about the anthem. It wasn’t about our country. It was about the injustice and raising awareness and getting people’s attention. I think once I got past that fact, I could really support it."

Only three NFL players regularly kneeled during the anthem last year. But that could change in 2020, as players seek to keep the spotlight on these issues.

Chicago Bears safety Jordan Lucas and Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson have both said they plan to protest during the national anthem in 2020. And Peterson indicated that a significant chunk of the league could join them, telling The Houston Chronicle that "we're all getting ready to take a knee together."

However, coaches and general managers of several teams — including the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts — have indicated that decisions about kneeling, linking arms or otherwise demonstrating during the national anthem will be made as a team. In Week 3 of the 2017 season, for example, NFL teams demonstrated en masse as a display of unity following criticism from President Donald Trump.

While NFL owners have largely been reticent to speak out about potential demonstrations, Goodell's comments seemed to signal that the league office would support any such actions. And several coaches have said they will stand by any of their players who choose to kneel, raise a fist or otherwise draw attention to important social issues — including Peterson's head coach, Ron Rivera.

"It is in our Constitution," Rivera told reporters Wednesday. "That is what our military personnel fought for."

Many NFL players are eager to extend the conversation beyond protests during the anthem. In the weeks since Floyd's death, they have marched at peaceful protests around the country, sometimes as a team, and donated money to social justice initiatives.

Hundreds of current and former players also signed a letter authored by the Players Coalition, calling for Congress to change a legal doctrine that often shields police from lawsuits while on the job.

"It’s not about who kneels and who doesn’t kneel," said reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, who is working with teammate Tyrann Mathieu on a voter registration initiative. "It’s about having the right to peacefully protest and to recognize that social injustices are happening and that racial inequality does happen every single day.

"I just want the community to be somewhere where everybody, including black people, feel like they can go into the community and be safe. Whatever actions that we can take to do that, it’s all about doing that as quickly as possible."

Protesting during the national anthem is not a substitute for police reform or the passage of a bill. But if and when the 2020 season does kick off, the demonstrations could nevertheless be a tool — a way of keeping the issues in the national conversation.

"I think you’ll be able to see players speak up in what they believe in," Woods said Wednesday, "and have the confidence that their team is able to back them."

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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