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The Day the NFL Finally Acknowledged the Real World

For 80 years, the league worked to establish a culture that opposed any so-called distractions. This Sunday, players, coaches, owners, and even the commissioner brought politics into the center of their sport.

Denver Broncos players kneeling during the national anthem Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With every piece of news on Sunday—from the Pittsburgh Steelers refusing to come out for the national anthem to LeSean McCoy saying President Donald Trump is “acting like a jerk” to the dozens of other players and coaches who made pointed comments toward the White House—I kept coming back to a conversation I had with Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins over the offseason.

We were discussing so-called “distraction” culture, the fortress that NFL coaches had built up over the past 80 years to make sure that real life never seeps into the sport. Football coaches, historically, hate real life. They like third-down efficiency, pass protection, and the field goal unit being set with plenty of time left on the play clock. They don’t like outspokenness, typically. If you are not playing or preparing to play football, you run the risk of being a distraction—a word that has come to signify anything that football coaches do not like. Real life, however, is a distraction. Alabama head coach Nick Saban claimed to not know that it was Election Day … on Election Day, and he acted like this sort of single-minded focus was something to brag about. Individuals exist in real life, but individualism has been anathema in football circles.

Distraction culture is what kept many players and coaches from speaking out until Sunday. Distraction culture is likely the reason that Colin Kaepernick still isn’t on an NFL roster. But here’s the thing about distractions: Since they’ve come to mean “anything,” they ultimately mean “nothing.”

In April, Jenkins told me that the way to break down distraction culture and for political activism to take root in football is through “power in numbers.”

“It’s only a ‘distraction’ when one or two guys are speaking out. When all of a sudden you have a whole team of guys or a majority of a team speaking on one issue, it’s no longer a distraction: It’s a priority for that team,” Jenkins said on a podcast we did together. “Any one person—you can cut them, you can get rid of them, do whatever. When it’s a collective thing, it’s very hard to single people out. [One,] our voices … become amplified because you have more voices and they are spread across the country in different cities. Two, it gets a little more protection for guys … who want to get involved but don’t know how and are a little bit afraid of their job security.”

He was talking about eventually building a network of politically active players and supporting one another. On Friday, Trump did the work for them by referring to any NFL player who protested as a “son of bitch” who should be “fired”—and then doubling and tripling down on his stance. There is power in numbers for politically active players, and after this weekend, no one is going to be afraid for their job security. The sport—and the conversation around politics and sports—has changed.

Ryan Anderson locks arms with Washington Redskins teammates during the national anthem Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We will look back on Sunday as the beginning of the end of an era when football teams did whatever they could to keep real life out of football. The NFL changed Sunday, perhaps permanently, perhaps just for the next few years, but it changed. It is not just that the president of the United States is in a war of words with the national pastime—watching football is essentially the only thing Americans do in large numbers anymore—and went so far as to call for a fan boycott. It is that Trump’s comments so stunned the football world that the risk-averse sport came out en masse against him. Earlier this month, Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills wondered why more players weren’t speaking out against police brutality, theorizing that perhaps endorsements or contracts were holding them back. That will no longer be the case.

The list of NFL people who came after Trump is both long and unexpected. Terry Bradshaw, of all people, owned Trump by telling him to stick to politics. Tennessee head coach Mike Mularkey and New Orleans head coach Sean Payton both ripped Trump. Mike Mularkey! Roger Goodell, who released a vague statement Saturday, was celebrated. MSNBC host Joy Reid framed Goodell’s statement as “claps back at Trump.” I did not know what to expect when this weekend started, but I definitely did not anticipate Goodell being accepted by The Resistance. The majority of owners then supported Goodell’s statement, ending up looking like the good guys. After a series of self-inflicted wounds in courtrooms across America with player discipline and health, the NFL league office is finally going into a battle and will come out with a positive image. Trump did something so outrageous that it united the vast majority of players, owners, coaches, and the commissioner. We are living in strange days.

Not all of the moments were powerful—I am not sure what an owner locking arms with players is supposed to signify in the context of politics—but taken as a whole, Sunday was significant. Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN on Sunday that he’d “previously told [players] that I would prefer that they not protest while in the Raiders uniform.” He continued: “I can no longer ask our team to not say something while they are in a Raider uniform. The only thing I can ask them to do is do it with class. Do it with pride. Not only do we have to tell people there is something wrong, we have to come up with answers. That’s the challenge in front of us as Americans and human beings.”

This is the change happening in most NFL locker rooms: On Sunday, for perhaps the first time in league history, players weren’t expected to stay quiet. They were told they could speak out.

There’s a fundamental misread of the activism around the league from critics. First, as pointed out by many observers, including ESPN’s Dan Le Batard on Sunday, most players who’ve knelt or raised fists for the anthem are specifically doing so to protest police brutality. It is not a “flag protest.” They are protesting during the national anthem, but it’s not the song they are protesting; they are using a visible moment to draw attention to their causes. But the larger misread comes in thinking that this protest is the centerpiece of the players’ activism. Jenkins has met with lawmakers to push for criminal justice reform when it comes to mandatory minimums that punish nonviolent crimes with harsh prison sentences. Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who sat during the anthem for the first game of this season, used social media to help get lawyers for a family stranded by the Muslim ban. Kaepernick has handed out free suits outside a parole office. That is where most of the activism is taking place—not on the 20 or so Sundays of football season.

It has always been strange how queasy sportswriters and commenters and fans can be around politics. The first American superstar athlete who didn’t stick to sports was the first American superstar athlete. His name was Babe Ruth, and he heartily endorsed Democrat Al Smith for president in 1928. (There is no record of Herbert Hoover calling Ruth a son of a bitch.) Yet it took the sports world nearly 100 years to even get somewhat comfortable with the ideas that all people have opinions. In recent years, the NBA has led the way on this: Warriors coach Steve Kerr wrote an essay on Trump on Sunday.

There are NFL coaches on both sides of the political spectrum, but in the past, the rank and file did not want a lot of their opinions out there. In my old job at The Wall Street Journal, a handful of coaches would try to talk politics with me, assuming that a generally conservative paper employs only conservatives. Four years ago, during a down moment in a conversation, one coach asked me if I faulted Bill Clinton for what happened in the Battle of Mogadishu. I quickly moved on. We never spoke about politics again. But this is generally a group that does not want their allegiances known (save for a few, like Bill Belichick or Rex Ryan, who were open Trump endorsers). Yet, there was not a lot of hesitation this weekend: In addition to Mularkey and Payton, Pete Carroll said “there’s no longer a place to sit silently.”

There were reports of boos directed toward players at various games throughout the weekend, but any meaningful fan boycott seems far-fetched: As I’ve said before, the number of people who watched NFL games did not change last season, just the amount of time they watched for. But the conversation about political activism in the sport will change. Will there be locker room problems when, say, a player like Denver’s Derek Wolfe, who publicly backed standing for the anthem and questioned why anyone who doesn’t like America stays here, discusses the matter with a teammate who disagrees? We’ve yet to find out. Will broadcasts show the anthem at every game? What forms of protest will players turn toward next?

What comes next, like anything on this planet right now, remains a mystery. Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith told Jenny Vrentas on Sunday that in the future people are going to look back and realize what kind of important change Kaepernick ushered into the sport. He’s right. As Josh Norman said after Washington’s game Sunday night, addressing Trump, “You have 1,800 men on your back now. Good luck with that.”

I have traveled the country talking to this generation of athletes. I have heard players say they do not care if they get fired for their beliefs, and I have heard about the lengths they’ve gone to help whatever their cause is. Football just changed, and this is not a one-Sunday affair. This is real life.