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NFL players team up in defiance and solidarity

Football stadiums across the country became fields of protests as more than 200 NFL players sat, kneeled or locked arms during the National Anthem in response to President Trump’s remarks and tweets about professional athletes. Jeffrey Brown reports on the player's protests, then Judy Woodruff speaks with Jerry Brewer of The Washington Post about the debates these acts have sparked.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It was not any given Sunday.

    Professional sports turned political, kicking off a national debate over protest, race and respect for the national anthem.

    Jeffrey Brown begins our coverage. (national anthem playing)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A day of defiance in the National Football League. In stadiums across the country, players chose their form of protest against a president who has made clear his distaste for such demonstrations.

  • BENJAMIN WATSON, Tight End, Baltimore Ravens:

    It was very emotional for all of us. And we all had decisions to make. Some guys kneeled. Some guys stood. But rest assured that we all care. We all care about any form of injustice.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    League-wide, more than 200 players sat or kneeled during the national anthem. Others locked arms with their teammates and some owners in a show of unity. Three teams, the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers, chose not to take the field during the anthem.

    The issue jumped into the headlines on Friday night, when the president spoke at a campaign rally in Alabama.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, get that son of a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) off the field right now? Out. He's fired.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    He's fired!

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Indeed, NFL owners responded, but many in opposition to the president. Even longtime Trump supporter New England Patriots boss Robert Kraft released a statement, saying: "I support our players' right to peacefully effect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful."

    Still, the president doubled down on his remarks with more than a dozen tweets, and one this morning with the hashtag #Standforouranthem.

    It was a steamy Sunday outside FedEx Field in suburban Washington. The hometown Redskins were getting set to take on the Oakland Raiders in a prime-time matchup. But as tailgaters fired up grills, tossed footballs and cheered on their teams, the political conversation loomed large.

  • MAN:

    Athletes have the platform. And if that's a way to get the message out, I'm all for it. It's peaceful. There's no violence. I'm all for it.

  • MAN:

    I want them all standing. If they want to lock arms, that's cool. But everybody stand up. If they don't want to stand, stay in the locker room, like Pittsburgh did, and be over with it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The debate drew a wide range of opinions on the role athletes should play in such national conversations.

  • MAN:

    Well, they're getting paid millions of dollars to play a game, a kids' game. So, you ought to respect a country that allows you to do that. I mean, you don't have to agree with the way things are. And there's other ways to protest. Stand up for the flag, because a lot of people died for it.

  • MAN:

    They're getting paid millions of dollars year after year even put their lives at risk, even to the point of concussion. But when it comes to them having consciousness, and when they feel they need something to change, that's when the whole motive shifts. It's crazy how that is.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Many of those who argue against kneeling say the protests disrespect the military. But veterans we met were split.

  • ERNEST DAVILA, U.S. Army:

    I have been in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I fight to protect our rights as American citizens with our freedom of speech. But kneeling for the flag isn't going to change what's happening.

  • NANCY BUCHANAN, Air Force Veteran:

    I think that was a stupid thing for the president to say. Everybody has a voice, and if they disagree with what the flag stands for, or whatever meaning behind it, that's their decision.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Corey Lee was at the game to watch his son Marquel, a starting linebacker for the Raiders. The Navy veteran supports what the players are doing, but when it came to his own son:

    COREY LEE, Father of Marquel Lee: Oh, he's going to stand for the national anthem. He's going to definitely stand for that. This is my son. And he knows my beliefs. He knows our beliefs as a family.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But lee's wife, Katanya, said Marquel can make up his own mind:

    KATANYA LEE, Mother of Marquel Lee: I want him to do whatever he feels in his heart is best for him. That's the way — I mean, we raised him to be very independent and to not be followers, but to be leaders.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Elsewhere, shows of support for the player who sparked the debate, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who first kneeled during the anthem last year to protest police brutality against minorities.

    The president has insisted his comments aren't about race, but Greg Banks disagrees.

    GREG BANKS, Washington, D.C. area: He's totally disregarding what the message is. And the message is, we don't want to be killed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The next act could come tonight, as the Arizona Cardinals face the Dallas Cowboys on the national broadcast of "Monday Night Football."

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We take a deeper look at all this now with Jerry Brewer, who has been reporting on and writing about all this for The Washington Post.

    Jerry Brewer, welcome to the program.

  • JERRY BREWER, The Washington Post:

    Thanks for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, you wrote in your column for today's Post — and they made it — "The Headline NFL Beat Trump."

    What did you mean by that?

  • JERRY BREWER:

    Well, I think Trump wanted to take on 1,800 members of a league and essentially tell them what to do. And they said, no, this is — our constitutional right is to express ourselves peacefully.

    And that's what they did Sunday. And, ultimately, that's what that was about. Colin Kaepernick is so much — it's about such bigger issues. But yesterday was really about, what do we stand for as a football league in the face of the president saying some vulgar things about us?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What is the message that the league is united behind, do you think?

  • JERRY BREWER:

    I think that they're united in just — in solidarity that you do have a choice.

    And they're united, I think, in the message that, if you choose to peacefully protest, that doesn't make you an SOB. It's quite — it's very much that simple.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And when the president and when his spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, today at the White House said, this is not about race, this is not about anything other than respecting our flag, respecting our country?

  • JERRY BREWER:

    Well, I don't think that you can — just like you can't take words out of context, you can't take actions out of context. It's very dangerous.

    And so the first thing, I believe, whenever someone protests, you have to ask the question, why? And you have to get to the why. And the why is, from Colin Kaepernick's standpoint and a lot of players who started this before Sunday, it's about police brutality, it's about inequality, it's about racism, it's about just building a better American society.

    And we have kind of gotten away from that. And they feel a sense of helplessness, in that no one is going to listen to this issue, unless I, who have a platform, do something.

    And people forget that protests are not supposed to be polite. You protest something because you feel like your voice isn't being heard. And so they're speaking for hundreds, thousands, millions of people who have these legitimate concerns in their own communities, and no one wants to pay the appropriate attention to them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Does it get more complicated when you have people taking it, as you saw some of the fans at the Redskins game yesterday, saying, they shouldn't be disrespecting the military, people who have sacrificed their — put their lives on the line for this country?

  • JERRY BREWER:

    Yes, I think it becomes a dangerous oversimplification.

    And I don't think — when you go and talk to any of these players, no one is saying that we're doing this against the military, that we're doing to this because we hate the United States.

    They're doing it to get attention. And I think you have — again, I think you have to put it in context, and we have to understand what they are doing.

    We understand that symbols are very powerful in this nation, in the entire world, but, ultimately, it is a symbol. But can we get back to caring about the people that they're trying to represent, instead of being so ferociously angry at how they're misrepresenting a symbol?

    It's a symbol. Again, the flag is a very powerful thing. I have family members. I have a huge history of family with military backgrounds. But, at the end of the day, you're choosing to peacefully kneel or sit down in front of a flag in order to say, please, please, please, would you pay attention to these issues of inequality that are ruining America, in my opinion?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We noticed that a number of players — I saw the number 200 — kneeled yesterday.

  • JERRY BREWER:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And there were a number of others who stood and locked arms.

    And we saw the owners locking arms. And the president at one point tweeted — I guess this was yesterday — he said: "Great solidarity for our anthem and our country. Standing with locked arms is good. Kneeling is not acceptable."

    Is there a difference?

  • JERRY BREWER:

    Yes, I do think there's a difference.

    I think, ultimately, what the NFL was trying to do yesterday was say, no matter how you want to express yourself, we're with you. And it was a very empathetic statement that they were trying to make, and they were trying to show that you can be united.

    And I think, in this country, name any issue. We are never going to be perfectly aligned and in agreement on anything. And that's — in a lot of ways, it's the beauty of our country. You're allowed to be that way.

    But you should care about the man to the right of you, the woman to the left of you. And that is the way that we get better. We can't just — we can't just say, this is this, this is how I feel, go argue at my brick wall over there in the corner.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    One other thing.

    This all started, in a way, last week with that report about concussions, about CTE, the new information that it's affecting these athletes much younger. That's out there.

    And, meantime, the president is saying in Alabama Friday night, oh, these new rules protecting the players are ruining — he said, ruining the game.

    What are we to take away from all that right now?

  • JERRY BREWER:

    Yes, if he didn't curse talking about the protests, I think that what he said about the game would be a lot more inflammatory.

    You're talking about — we're talking about athletes who play this game for 10 years, leave, and then, 15 years later, they are committing suicide because they have brain damage, because they have CTE.

    And you can't just come back and say, I want football to be the way it used to be.

    And what is the value of a life? These aren't just disposable human beings. And, again, that speaks to just football.

    But when you want to talk about America in general and issues that people care about, human beings are not disposable. And we have to get back to having some empathy. We understand that we all aren't going to agree, but we can listen to each other, and we can learn from each other, even though we may not agree.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So much more to talk about here.

    Jerry Brewer of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • JERRY BREWER:

    Thank you.

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