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Political Subplot Overshadows Sunday's NFL Games

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in the United States, football Sunday felt different yesterday. Even non-sports fans were riveted watching how NFL teams responded to President Trump. He called Friday for players to be fired if they kneeled in protest during the national anthem. Yesterday many players who aren't in the habit of kneeling did so. Several teams linked arms in a show of unity, and a few, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, decided as a team to skip the anthem. Here's Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS SPORTS")

MIKE TOMLIN: These are very divisive times for our country. And, you know, for us, we're not going to be divided by anything said by anyone. That's the thing that I posted to our guys. I said, if you feel the need to do anything, I'ma be supportive of that. As Americans, you have that right. But whatever we do, we're going to do it a hundred percent. We're going to do together.

GREENE: Together. Though we should say one Steeler who's a former Army Ranger did come outside a tunnel just off the field to stand for the anthem. Jesse Washington, a senior writer with the sports and culture website The Undefeated, he joins us from member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Hey, Jesse.

JESSE WASHINGTON: Good morning.

GREENE: So what image stood out to you yesterday? I know you were at the game in Philadelphia, right?

WASHINGTON: Yes. When the anthem played and, as is his practice, Malcolm Jenkins, the cornerback who's been protesting for the past year or so, stood with a raised fist. Several other players stood with a raised fist. Their white teammate, Chris Long, stood near them with a hand on shoulder in support. But the image that really stuck with me was the owner of the team, Jeffrey Lurie, who was on the sideline. He locked arms with other players and with police and military members. Jeff Lurie was there to support what Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long were doing, to support the right of his players to protest. And his statement said a lot when he mentioned that our players are working to improve our community - because that's what the protest is really about. It's not about we don't like the anthem. It's about we are trying to change our community. So for the owner of an NFL franchise to throw his support behind protesting players, to me, was a big moment perhaps in concert with other owners who did supportive things, perhaps a turning point in this whole issue.

GREENE: OK. And you're talking about the Philadelphia Eagles there and their owner and players but saying - I mean, mentioning that other teams did the same thing. Why do you call it a turning point? Why do you see this as a turning point?

WASHINGTON: For one, the critical mass of players that were out there. If you take out labor strikes from pro sports, this may have been the biggest mass protest for social justice in pro sports history. So the number of players who stood up, the number of front-office executives, of owners, of entire teams who may not have protested themselves but who supported the players' right to protest, who said we're trying to make a change for our community. I thought that was really important.

GREENE: Is - I mean, you have interviewed fans on both sides of this, some of them telling you that they essentially agree with what the president says, that these protests are disrespectful to - to the flag and the anthem. There was some booing yesterday as players were kneeling. Could this cause a rift between the NFL and a big chunk of its audience?

WASHINGTON: I think the rift was already there. It could widen it between the fans who are already against these protests, who are unsympathetic to the causes that the players are trying to bring to light. So let's not get too happy about what happened yesterday and think that the problem is solved and everything's going to be "Kumbaya." Let's see how the owners react when the ratings come in for this week. And next week's ratings could very well fall off a cliff because players - fans, rather, are upset what the players are doing. But at least some owners have decided to side with unity, equality and things are going to change here in the NFL.

GREENE: All right. Jesse Washington is a senior writer with The Undefeated. We appreciate you joining us, Jesse.

WASHINGTON: Thank you.

GREENE: He was at member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.