Nowhere was the galvanising capacity of sport, the inimitable way a team can bring together strangers, regardless of race or gender or socio-economic background, more apparent than on Thursday night in Philadelphia. It was the opening night of the NFL season and the hometown Eagles, who in February won a Super Bowl for the ages before getting disinvited from the White House celebrations, were raising the banner commemorating the team’s first championship in 57 years before opening their title defense against the Atlanta Falcons.
Yet only days after Nike confirmed that Colin Kaepernick would be the face of a new ad campaign, the subject of the NFL player protests continued to divide opinion among supporters of a team whose roster includes some of the NFL's most socially conscious players. On Thursday night, none of the Eagles – or Falcons – protested during the anthem, save for defensive end Michael Bennett, who sat down at the very end of the song. Even without any overt protests though, the anthem debate still provokes divergent views among fans.
Neal McLaurin, a 39-year-old fitness coach from North Philadelphia who spent Thursday afternoon hawking bottles of water for a dollar apiece to fans exiting the subway, said he believed fully in the players’ right to demonstrate, although he admitted “the message got lost a long time ago”.
“I don’t think people truly understand to the full extent of it or are even trying to understand,” he said. “They just think [the players]are being rebellious. They don’t understand the third verse of the national anthem, what it says about slavery, and the flag that we pledge allegiance to is a flag of war. This is supposed to be America, right? We should have the freedom to protest if you’re not harming anyone. They give the Ku Klux Klan and and the Nazis the freedom to sow hate.”
Nearby was Sonny Forriest Jr, a 60-year-old from the city's West Oak Lane neighbourhood who said he served a tour of duty with the US Army in Vietnam, where he lost his left leg. He said the message of the protests has been deliberately mischaracterised.
“It’s not anti-military,” said Forriest, who was wearing a hat reading ‘Vietnam Veteran’ with a half-smoked Parliament hanging from his lip. “It’s about freedom of speech. His protest was good. It’s about black injustice, how black people are getting killed in the streets.”
While Philadelphia boasts a more liberal fanbase than NFL teams in more conservative areas, the idea of failing to properly the honour the national anthem is still unacceptable for many Eagles supporters. Tracy Healy, a 47-year-old bartender making her first trip to Lincoln Financial Field, said she found the protests highly disrespectful.
“I see both ways, but there are so many people fighting for your country, so many incredible people, the least you could do is stand up,” said Healy, who became an Eagles fan through her boyfriend and was making her first visit to the team’s home ground. “It might not be the right opinion but it’s my opinion. I really think it’s disrespectful.”
MacKenzie Faight, a 24-year-old financial worker attending the game with three friends, said that she understands the importance of the issues raised by the players, but is troubled by Nike’s decision to publicly align itself with Kaepernick.
The two-minute commercial, which had its national television premiere during Thursday night’s game, is centered around the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” But Faight, who is from the Philadelphia suburb of Bristol, finds the entire package appalling.
“I understand their message, but I don’t agree that it should be [Kaepernick], nor should it say that he made a sacrifice because he didn’t make any sacrifices,” she said. “The ultimate sacrifice, in my opinion, coming from a military and navy background, is defending your country is giving your life. The ultimate sacrifice is your life. He didn’t give his life for anything.”
Yet others found the advertisement inspiring, such as Jordan Ricks, a 30-year-old chef and author who came up from Delaware.
“I think it was a bold move,” he said. “But I also believe that more people will start trying to find out the reason behind it, because you’ve got a dialogue to it now. Before it was just what he’s doing, his actions. Now the words are coming together. They forget that we’re okay with standing for the flag, but we take knees for the fallen.”
For still more, the apparent exile of Kaepernick was simply down to talent.
"We let felons play in the league, we let convicts play in the league, we let bad people play in the league: Was kneeling the worst thing he could have done?" said Sean Rooney, a 35-year-old Eagles fan from Virginia Beach. "I think it's weird but I think he's still a bad quarterback. If he really wanted to play, more so last year than this year, he should have put out a mixtape or something where he's like: 'Watch me throw through tires, watch my speed, I'm ready to play, what aren't you guys signing me?' But instead it was like: 'Why aren't you guys signing me? I'm Colin Kaepernick.'"
As for the players, Malcolm Jenkins, who has been a central figure in the player protests and has raised his first during the anthem, chose to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner on Thursday. He said the drive for social justice among players was moving into a new stage.
“I mean, at this point, it’s important for us as a movement to change and adapt to the context of the situation. I think there’s a huge need for us to turn the attention towards the issues and, not only the issues, but what players are doing in their communities to affect change,” Jenkins said in the locker room after the game. – Guardian service