4 Jaguars make statement in skipping national anthem before kickoff

Leonard Fournette, pictured in January, stayed in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem on Thursday.
Leonard Fournette, pictured in January, stayed in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem on Thursday. “Everyone has their own beliefs in certain things.” (AP)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Telvin Smith knew the questions were coming. He and three of his Jacksonville Jaguars teammates stayed in the locker room during the national anthem on Thursday in the Jaguars’ first preseason game of the year. Reporters wanted answers. So after signing autographs for two small children bearing Florida State helmets at his locker, Smith spoke.

“As a man I got certain beliefs,” he said. “This is not going to become a distraction in Jacksonville, this is not going to be a distraction for this team. I got beliefs, I did what I did. I don’t know if it’s gonna be every week. I can’t answer if it’s going to be every week. As a man I gotta stand for something. I love my team, I’m dedicated to my teammates and that’s what we’re talking about. I did what I did. It was love. I hope people see and respect it. I respect different views. I love the military. I wore my Salute to Service cleats today. It’s love.”

And that was it. He refused to answer any other questions about his decision.

Leonard Fournette: ‘It’s a personal thing’

Jalen Ramsey did not show up immediately at his locker after the game. T.J. Yeldon said he “didn’t want to come out.” Asked whether he didn’t want to come out for the anthem, he let out a sigh and said an almost inaudible, “Yeah,” Leonard Fournette said, “it’s a personal thing, man. Don’t really want to get into it. Everyone has their own beliefs in certain things.” He then started speaking about the game, a loss to the New Orleans Saints. When he was pressed, he said, “I ain’t really trying to get into it.” Asked again, he said, “It’s something I believe in and I ain’t really trying to get into it.”

And that was it.

It has been two years, almost to the day, since then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem of a preseason game. Nearly two weeks later, he spoke about why:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Since then, the NFL has struggled mightily to figure out how to deal with the fallout. There have been individual protests and team protests. There has been a president calling a protesting player a “son of a bitch” deserving of a suspension. There have been shows of philanthropy, defiance and silence. And this summer, there has been a Miami Dolphins threat to suspend players who protest, which was later rescinded and left to the league to decide. It is unclear what penalty, if any, will be levied for players who protest during the regular season. Perhaps there will be no penalty. In a statement Thursday, the league announced it would “delay implementing or enforcing any club work rules that could result in players being disciplined for their conduct during the performance of the anthem.”

That statement was sent after two Dolphins kneeled during the anthem at their game Thursday.

Is an explanation necessary?

These four Jaguars made their own statement and decided not to explain it. In one sense, it’s powerful. They feel they do not need to account for their choice. As Smith said, “As a man I gotta stand for something.”

But in another sense their lack of an explanation will allow vehement critics to deride them for not explaining their viewpoint. If you’re going to take that kind of stand, don’t you have to explain what it is you stand for? Otherwise what kind of stand is it? Saying you have “beliefs” begs for explanation, especially on a topic this polarizing. What beliefs? Beliefs about the police? About race relations? About the president? All of the above?

This is the catch-22 for protesting players: hold their tongues and risk derision for not putting words to their feelings; or speak out and risk derision for whatever they say.

Jacksonville head coach Doug Marrone said he didn’t even know the players had remained in the locker room until after the game: “I think I made clear that, for me, I’m always going to stand with my hand on my heart and I think that the people that don’t, then they’ve got to answer to it, to the media.”

The players didn’t really answer to it. Should they?

No one is going to change their mind on this topic at this point. So why allow the media to edit their words? Why not make this truly a personal decision by keeping the specific reasons personal? Kaepernick’s two-year-old statement, in some sense, covers everyone who is kneeling or raising a fist or staying in the locker room to protest police brutality. He no longer has a job in this league, so it falls to the players who still do.

There were other protests on Thursday that included the Eagles. But this is a military town. The team owner here, Shad Khan, was a donor to President Trump’s campaign. Ramsey and Fournette are emerging superstars, with jersey sales through the roof. Doing what they did in “Bold City” was bold, even if you hate it. And surely the president will hate it.

What will Donald Trump do? What will Roger Goodell do? What will Marrone do?

Maybe it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. This was the players’ statement, without any words, and it was loud enough and clear enough for them.

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