As police, firefighters and EMTs unfurled the enormous U.S. flag across the width and length of the field at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Chiefs stepped toward it and linked arms.
The approach was both one of deference to the moment and a nod to a movement – vastly different stances that it turns out can go together.
In the churning wake of the protests of racial oppression by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, black-and-white stood tethered as one before the Chiefs went on to concoct the most prolific comeback in franchise history by beating San Diego 33-27 in overtime after trailing by 21 points.
Whatever you might think of Kaepernick’s controversial approach, it has launched a steady evolution of constructive and stirring reactions, some of which were prominently on display here.
As described by receiver Chris Conley, the pregame idea was to make a galvanizing statement that they stand for those who serve our country even while making the nuanced distinction that they wish not to protest, but to call attention to issues — a notion they plan to back up by engaging initiatives to help mend relationships between authorities and the community.
“We didn’t want to alienate anyone,” Conley said. “We wanted to respect everyone’s differences and everyone’s beliefs.”
Just the same, part of the beauty of this also was that it wasn’t some programmed, sanitized gimmick but something real enough to be greater than the sum of its parts while still allowing for the parts to flourish.
Which brings us to the national anthem and cornerback Marcus Peters standing at the end of the line, his left arm hooked in alignment with his team … and his right fist hoisted in the air, a la the “Black Power” pose made iconic in sports history by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
At least it appeared similar to Carlos.
“It looked like he had a glove on, too,” Carlos said in a phone interview Sunday. “I’ll have to put something about him on my (Facebook) page, for sure.”
Alluding to both Kaepernick and Peters, Carlos said, “We’re here for the duration; we’re not going away. … What you see today is the fruit of our labor.”
That being, he said, to simply stand against bigotry and racism.
“It’s not about white and black or rich and poor,” Carlos said. “It’s about right and wrong.”
For his initial version of expressing that, Carlos along with Smith was effectively sent home from the Olympics.
But he still maintains that sport should be a vehicle for more — as he saw it in the case of Peters.
“Having talent doesn’t mean I have to give up my manhood or my vision of how society should be,” Carlos said.
Peters is familiar with Carlos, so when he was told that Carlos had acknowledged him with admiration, he considered that an honor.
But as a native of Oakland, he has his own story and own reasons for expressing himself, too.
“I was just stating how I’m black, and I love being black, (and) I’m supporting Colin in what he’s doing as far as raising awareness with the justice system,” he said. “But I didn’t mean anything (bad) by it.”
In fact, he also said he didn’t mean this to be about him, either.
Like Conley and teammate Jeremy Maclin, he instead alluded to trying to work with authorities in Kansas City “and all around the world” to be agents of change.
Vague on details but with conviction, he challenged the media to help educate kids, and referred to his own (apparently unpublicized) efforts back in Oakland.
In the brief time he spoke with reporters, Peters said “Coach” had told him it was “OK if I wanted to express my thoughts.”
While it was unclear if he meant Andy Reid or an assistant, Reid and others emphatically backed Peters.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you we’re in America,” Reid said. “This kid comes from Oakland and does a phenomenal job in the community and Oakland. There’s no question he respects … law enforcement, military; you don’t ever question that with this guy.
“He just wants what is right, like we all do. … What the players are doing right now is important. Let’s just all get along, and that would be a beautiful thing.”
Each in their own way, Conley, Maclin and quarterback Alex Smith offered perspectives that left you thinking about how each piece can be part of a mosaic — a notion fit for a team, but for a society, too.
“That’s what people have to realize, that it’s going to take everybody, and I think that was … what we wanted to get across,” said Maclin, who said the Chiefs expect to meet in the next few weeks with law enforcement and “people of higher power” in the area to discuss ideas.
Conley noted he hadn’t known Peters would raise his fist but thought it entirely within the framework of what the Chiefs set out to do.
“Everyone wanted to do something a little different,” he said. “Some guys linked arms and put their hands over the hearts at the same time. We just wanted everyone do whatever they wanted to do but at the same time be unified as a team.
As he pondered Peters’ role on Sunday, Smith said, “Listen, we all walk in different shoes. Marcus is from the East Bay. Who am I to say? My experience is different than his, and different from every other guy in that locker room.
“So, you know, raising a fist? You know — fine. We were together out there, we were linked up. It’s a special day in history for this country, 9-1-1. I think it’s a day to really be thankful for your freedoms, for the people who have provided for them and made the ultimate sacrifice for us.
“So that’s the freedom. It’s a great country.”
Especially when people consider that one statement needn’t be at the expense of another.