By: Will Burchfield
“Right is right, wrong is wrong — and it was wrong. So we came together and just made a statement. Nobody is taking that stuff, man,” said Akeem Spence of the Lions.
Eight Lions players, Spence among them, knelt during the national anthem before Sunday’s game and the rest of the team locked arms in protest of Donald Trump’s comments on Friday that NFL owners should fire players who don’t stand for the anthem.
“It’s awful for a president to say something like that,” said Glover Quin. “A president is a person that a kid looks at. They should want to aspire to be the president, but I can’t say I want my kids looking at that type of behavior and saying, ‘Hey dad, I want to be like that.’ There’s no place for that. It’s very uncalled for, and we just wanted to show a sign of solidarity and show that we can’t just sit back and do nothing.”
At a political rally in Alabama on Friday, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.'”
Lions owner Martha Ford condemned Trump’s comments in an official statement released Sunday morning, and head coach Jim Caldwell did the same later that afternoon, following his team’s 30-26 loss to the Falcons.
“I’ve been in the league a little while, and I know the players in this league. There are no SOB’s in this league. These are men that work hard, of integrity, they’re involved in our communities. They’re fathers, they’re brothers and their mothers aren’t what (Trump) said they were,” Caldwell said. “And our guys, just like anything else, believe in unity, civility and also the first amendment rights to peaceful expression and freedom of speech.
Caldwell declined to answer any follow-up questions — “We’re trying to focus in on things that help us grow and develop, not things that tear people down and divide us,” he explained — but added, “It wasn’t in protest of the flag, it was unity, which I want you to understand is clear.”
Kneeling for the anthem was sparked last year by Colin Kaepernick as a way to protest police brutality against minorities. The Lions’ statement on Sunday was about that, too, Quin said, but also so much more.
“It was about solidarity, and it was about all of it, to be honest with you, police brutality, criminal justice, racism. All that stuff, man. Things are happening every day that we all know shouldn’t be happening, and until somebody stands up and stops it it’s going to continue to happen,” said Quin. “For the president to basically tell the people who are trying to make a difference that they need to stop, you obviously know what side of the fence he’s on.”
“He says so many things, and he wants to talk about us disrespecting the flag. Like, is that really what we’re doing?” Quin added. “Guys are getting disrespected every day, things are happening in the world that shouldn’t be happening. He knows it, the whole world knows it. For him to not understand that things need to change in our society and to criticize what people are peacefully doing to try and make change, it’s awful.”
The Lions were joined on the field for the anthem by Ford, who stood at the 50-yard line locking arms with Caldwell and one of her daughters.
“It meant a lot. She’s a wonderful person. She believes in us, she trusts in us, she’s always there for us whenever we need it,” said Eric Ebron. “All we can do is just be thankful for the ownership that we have of this organization. She brings a lot for us, and we play for a lot because of that.”
Several owners stood with their players during the anthem on Sunday, including the Falcons’ Arthur Blank. Though Trump does have some support within the NFL ownership — “They’re friends of mine, many of them,” the President said on Friday — he was universally rebuked by this group for his latest remarks about the league.
“For Mrs. Ford and all the owners around the league to recognize that and not stand for that and quickly speak up — it’s a difference when you quickly speak up and when you wait a couple days to see if others are speaking up,” said Quin. “To quickly speak up means they saw it and there’s no place for that, so that’s good.”
Spence echoed Caldwell’s comments about the integrity of NFL players.
“There are hard-working people who give back to the community. Our owners are the same way, and they have the utmost respect for us and we have the utmost respect for our country, our flag and everything like that. So for our head guy to say something like that about our owners, what they should do — No, man,” said Spence. “Right is right, wrong is wrong.”
Ebron was the lone Lions’ player who didn’t lock arms with his teammates. Instead, he stood far behind them and off to the side. Both Ebron’s father and grandfather served in the marines, the latter in three different wars.
“My feelings are a little bit different, just because my grandfather and my father fought for this flag,” said Ebron. “For (Trump) to direct something upon us, it seems different. You’re our leader and you’re coming at a small group, a small organization. I took it to heart because I’m not a big fan of disrespect and I feel like he disrespected all of us. So I took it upon myself to voice my own opinion and take my own action.”
Ebron added his decision to stand behind was teammates was “not a separate statement.”
“It’s just something that I did. Caldwell asked us all to stand together and unite, and I was there for my brothers. I fight for my brothers and I’d die for these dudes in this locker room, but my view is just a little bit different,” he said.
On Sunday via Twitter, Trump condoned locking arms during the anthem but reiterated “kneeling is not acceptable.” He said on Friday, “I know we have freedoms and we have freedom of choice and many many different freedoms, but you know what, it’s still totally disrespectful.”
Trump appeared to be unaware that the players were locking arms not in support of the anthem but in protest of his comments.