In the moments before their showdown against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, a number of Chiefs gathered in the locker room and –– motivated at least in part by President Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments over the weekend –– decided to express themselves during the national anthem.
There was just one thing one of the leaders of the demonstration, third-year receiver Chris Conley, wanted all of his teammates to know.
“Basically what I said to guys is, ‘Hey, if you feel led to protest, protest. If you feel led to stand, stand. There’s no pressure to do it either way,’” Conley explained. “There were some guys who were like ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ And I was like ‘Dude, if you’ve got to think about it, stand.’ We’re not pressuring anybody to do anything.
“But the thing we wanted to show is hey, regardless of what you felt led to do, we support each other. We call each other a family here. We have different backgrounds, we come from different places. We were able to say ‘Even if I disagree with you, I respect you and I support you.’”
So there was Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters –– who had previously been the only Chiefs player to protest during the anthem, using the opportunity to bring attention to racial inequality and treatment of black people by police –– again sitting during the anthem, this time with his right fist raised in the air.
There was defensive linemen Bennie Logan and Roy Miller, who placed one hand over his heart and the other on Peters’ shoulder, flanking him. There was outside linebacker Justin Houston, praying on both knees near the bench, while tight end Travis Kelce, defensive lineman Chris Jones and Conley kneeled.
Others who chose to sit included Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, Cameron Erving, Terrence Smith, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Kenneth Acker, Albert Wilson, Ukeme Eligwe and Kareem and Akeem Hunt. It was a show of solidarity not displayed by the Chiefs until Trump called for NFL owners to fire players who didn’t stand for the anthem on Friday, and doubled down on those comments Sunday morning.
“It’s brought our locker room together,” Conley said. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Hey Chris, I don’t agree with what you’re doing, but I respect you for being able to say that, and we’re here with you. I think that is something the sports world could show and shine a light on.
“We’re not all the same person, we’re not all the gonna think the same way. But we can still support each other and come together for a common goal and look at the issues and make it better.”
A similar number of Chargers players also knelt or otherwise lodged quiet protest, reflecting the scene around the league Sunday after Trump suggested that any football player protesting was a “son of a bitch” and called for a boycott of the league via Twitter because of multiple players’ refusal to stand for the anthem, which he called disrespectful of the military.
“The biggest thing people say to me is that it’s offensive to those who served now or then,” Conley said. “I have family that serves now, I have family that served then. My dad’s a retired vet and they support it. They realize it’s not throwing any jabs at our military or our country. I love our country, but I’m not above saying I think it could be better.”
Cornerback Kenneth Acker was in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick, who began this movement a year ago when he decided to kneel for the anthem. He, like Conley, hopes players see the bigger picture of their efforts to both bring awareness to racial injustice and have empathy for the conditions of one’s fellow man.
“I just feel like it’s something where it’s a team thing, more than anything,” Acker said. “Everything doesn’t have to be an argument, everything doesn’t have to be an issue. It’s more of everybody just respecting their rights and using the rights we do have to make a change.”
Trump’s inflammatory comments prompted many –– including Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith –– to defend the protestors. Commissioner Roger Goodell responded by calling the president’s commentary divisive, and owner after owner came out with statements on Sunday blasting Trump’s stance.
Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt issued a statement, too, shortly before his team’s kickoff in the LA area, though he stopped short of denouncing the commander in chief.
Instead, Hunt came closer to echoing the statement he made last fall when he made clear that it is his preference that Chiefs players stand for the anthem.
He put forth support for his players, and reiterated the importance of respecting the American flag and engaging one another with empathy about all of the country’s issues.
“We are blessed in the National Football League to work with an outstanding group of players who, through their thoughtfulness and generosity, are deeply engaged in their communities,” the statement read. “We believe in honoring the American flag and supporting all of those whose sacrifices protect the many freedoms with have in this country, including the right to have differences of opinion.
“Sports have long been a unifying force –– especially in challenging times –– and hatred and division have no place in our game. As a nation, we face serious challenges, and I believe as Americans, each of us has a responsibility to engage one another with empathy and humility to gain a better understanding of ways we can work together to solve these difficult issues.”
Other owners were directly critical on Sunday of Trump.
“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president on Friday,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement.
Meanwhile, two more owners whose support of Trump has been known joined their players on the field for the anthem. Jaguars owner Shad Khan joined arms with his players before his team’s game, and Texans owner Bob McNair called Trump’s comments “divisive” and “counterproductive.”
Conley hopes his countrymen also take note of the additional things players are doing in their respective communities to foster tangible change.
“There are a lot of guys that are active in our communities, and we have a lot of people say, ‘Hey, what are you doing on the ground?’” Conley said. “There might be a chance to highlight what people actually do on the ground, or opportunities may arise where we can get (addition) feet on the ground in the communities. You can raise awareness as much as you want, but you’ve got to do the legwork, too.”