In Philadelphia at the Eagles' home opener: Please, no talk about NFL protests
PHILADELPHIA - At the prompting of an announcer at Thursday night's NFL opener, nearly 70,000 Eagles fans stood for the national anthem, performed by Boyz II Men alongside the Philadelphia Police Honor Guard.
Fans pulled off their hats and commemorative visors featuring the "Philly Special," a diagram of the trick play that was key to winning the Super Bowl last season. They put their right hands over their hearts, sometimes having to shift their beers to their left. Some sang along while others cheered the song's key lines.
Several fans said they didn't even think to scan the sidelines to see if any players knelt in protest of police brutality and racial inequality. For those who looked: All players from both teams were on the field. Malcolm Jenkins, a safety who has sometimes raised a fist in protest, stood quietly alongside his teammates. A defensive end who is new to the team wandered around during most of the song and sat on the bench toward its end.
There was a burst of red and silver fireworks at the mention of the "bombs bursting in air" and a burst of applause when the anthem was complete - having lasted barely two minutes. At that, the part of the game that President Donald Trump has used to fan opposition to the players was over - to nearly everyone's relief.
A year into the battle between Trump and African-American NFL players, most in the stands just seemed to want it over. Dozens of Eagles fans said in interviews that they're disappointed that the divisive nature of politics these days has seeped into every aspect of life, even football. Many said they're tired of Trump's tweets, of combative cable news panels, of Facebook fights, of politicians flinging red meat ahead of the midterm elections, of symbolic gestures losing their meaning.
"The whole purpose behind the kneeling has gotten corrupted by the politicians," said Richard Campbell, 44, an African-American father of two teenage girls who traveled to the game from North Carolina. "It was a simple gesture that was meant to bring attention to something that needed to be addressed - but people have taken it and turned it into a political agenda. They turned it into this whole: You're either with the country or against it."
"I'm sick of it. I'm sick of the whole thing," said Matt Cory, 38, a political independent who lives in the area. He doesn't like players kneeling but thinks the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. "You come to a sporting event to relax and enjoy yourself. . . . I get it. I get that it's important, but I'm just tired of it. I'm exhausted."
As the crowd rallied in support of the Eagles, a Fox News reporter more than 2,000 miles away in Montana asked Trump about a new Nike ad narrated by former 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began protesting during the national anthem two years ago.
"Who is going to win this cultural showdown of standing for the anthem?" the reporter asked against the backdrop of a campaign rally that would soon begin.
Before the president could answer, a guy in the crowd bellowed: "We are!" Others echoed him, and then the president did the same: "We are."
In Billings, Trump's side of the fight prevailed: Several supporters said in interviews that they've stopped watching NFL games because of the player protests.
A woman from a small mountain town said her family canceled their cable subscription to the NFL Network. A lifelong Seattle Seahawks fan wearing a "CNN is Fake News" T-shirt said the protests have rekindled his interest in college football, and he would now rather watch the University of Washington Huskies and the University of Montana Grizzlies. An 80-year-old veteran said he and his friends will not watch another NFL game until the protests end.
"I used to like the NFL, but when politics got put into the NFL, I quit watching," said Anthony Stamness, who lives in Billings and works in the oil industry. "It used to be a time to just sit back and enjoy the game, but they started interjecting political correctness and all this other malarkey. It's not what it used to be. It's a damn shame."
In Philadelphia, however, Trump's argument seemed to be losing steam.
Ahead of the kickoff, thousands of Eagles fans tailgated in parking lots surrounding Lincoln Financial Field. Music blared as fans tossed footballs and played cornhole. At the urging of a cheering crowd, a young man with blond hair stuck his head in a kiddie pool filled with ice-cold water and cans of beer. There were scattered chants of: "E-A-G-L-E-S! Eagles!" Empty beer cans crunched underfoot and two helicopters hovered overhead.
Fans talked about the game ahead, an approaching thunderstorm and their skepticism that the Eagles could pull off another season like the last, the one that ended in the team's first Super Bowl win. They discussed their jobs, their diets, their mutual acquaintances and the outrageous cost of child care and college these days.
Many didn't want to talk politics. Most, certainly, didn't want to do so by name.
A young man wearing a T-shirt that labeled him as someone who always stands for the national anthem declined to explain why. A blond woman spoke for herself and her girlfriends, all of whom drank Bud Light out of green Eagles cans, declaring: "We don't have opinions on politics."
"You're talking politics at a football game?" said a longtime Republican who voted for Trump. "There are deer ticks, flea ticks, lunatics and politics."
One tailgating group included 20- and 30-somethings who attend the same church and see politics differently: a union electrician who has a Trump sticker on his hard-hat, an Army veteran who thinks that "vet-flakes" have become too sensitive and too quickly offended, a general contractor who has stopped turning on NFL games at home because he doesn't want to explain the kneeling controversy to his two young children.
"I wish the NFL would be the NFL," said James Nelson, 31, the general contractor, who voted for Trump. "The freedom of speech is a double-edged sword. I don't like that people kneel and protest, but when you start saying that they have to stand and they have to support it, then you're eroding the freedom of speech. . . . You're talking about fascism when you start telling people they have to salute the flag, they have to stand for the anthem."
The veteran - who is 28 and works as a police officer in the Philly suburbs and requested anonymity because he feared problems at work if he gave his full name - said he was frustrated that Nike decided to "rekindle" the issue two days before the season opened, at a time when "people wanted this to be over." Others at the tailgate agreed with him.
His older brother - who reluctantly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 - jumped in to remind everyone of why Kaepernick started protesting in the first place. He spoke slowly, carefully choosing his words.
"He stated the main reason that he was doing it was because of the perceived police brutality towards African-Americans, especially young male African-Americans," said the older brother, who is 31 and spoke on the condition of anonymity because talking about politics could cause problems at his job. "I'm glad that the dude is standing for something that he believes in and thinks is important - and in various parts of the country, statistically, is still a problem."
His younger brother, the police officer, cut him off: "There is no factual basis behind what Colin Kaepernick is doing. . . . It is not a systemic problem like they say it is. It's a made-up thing."
They agreed, however, that both political parties had used the NFL protests for their own ends.
"It's like: Oh, you lean this way, then you're alt-right, you're a Nazi. Oh, you're a communist if you're on the left. No, you can be in the middle," noted Nelson, the Trump-supporting contractor.
The thunderstorm hit and delayed the game by 40 minutes. Everyone was herded into the concourses where many continued to drink heavily - including a 27-year-old woman wearing a T-shirt that said: "I stand for our national anthem." Her husband was a Marine killed overseas, she said, so she gets especially angry when people don't stand for the anthem.
"Would you kneel during the national anthem?" she asked a woman standing nearby, who shook her head no.
"Would you kneel at the national anthem?" she asked a young man walking past, who told her, "No."
"Would you kneel during the national anthem?" she asked a young black couple passing, who asked her to restate her question. "Kneel. At the national anthem."
"Yeah," they both said.
"Well," she said, with a raise of an eyebrow. "They said yes."
Four minutes after the Eagles kicked off at Lincoln Financial Field, Trump took the stage in Billings and made a passing reference to the flag: "The people of Montana love our country, love our country so much. They honor our values, and you always respect our great American flag. You see what's happening."
He didn't directly address the NFL controversy, as he sometimes does, or mention the Eagles, whom he disinvited from visiting the White House this spring after several players announced they would not attend a Super Bowl ceremony there.
He rattled through his usual attacks and boasts. And at the end of the speech, he summoned his view of patriotism.
"We will not bend. We will not break. We will never give in," he said. "We will always fight on to victory. . . . Because we are America. And our hearts bleed red, white and blue."
Ten minutes later, the football game paused for halftime, the Eagles down by three. As the concourses once again filled with fans, no one seemed to be talking about politics.