Since Sunday, a silent gesture has said more than any words possibly could, and no matter the intent from five players of the St. Louis Rams, the reaction—and subsequent national debate—is deafening.
There are people, otherwise reasonable Americans, who find what Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt did on Sunday to be deplorable.
There are people who find what those five young men did to be offensive to the police, in direct support of those who chose to riot in the wake of the grand jury's decision in Ferguson, Missouri, in late November. We had a caller on our Bleacher Report Radio show this morning on SiriusXM suggest that members of the Rams simply, and silently, raising their hands in the air was akin to high-fiving a thug carrying a Molotov cocktail.
Hands up. It was a gesture, not a protest. It was a show of support for the community—their community—and not a directed knock at the hardworking police who have been assigned to protect the team, the stadium and that very community. For anyone to suggest otherwise is either missing the point of the display or purposefully changing the conversation to meet their own political agendas.
And with that gesture, and the subsequent fallout, began the worst game of semantics between a police force and its local NFL team in American sports history.
Seriously, this story is ridiculous. Sadly, it shouldn't surprise anyone paying attention at all.
After witnessing the Rams' display on Sunday, the St. Louis Police Officers Association penned a strongly worded letter denouncing what the players did, calling it "tasteless, offensive and inflammatory." The letter stated that the gesture has become synonymous with the thought that Michael Brown was shot while his hands were raised—despite recent testimony, per the grand jury, that suggests Brown was gunned down by officer Darren Wilson during a physical altercation in which Wilson feared for his life.
The SLPOA statement called for the players involved to be disciplined and the NFL and the Rams to deliver a "very public apology" before suggesting that "cops and their supporters" will boycott the league and its local St. Louis franchise if one is not provided.
I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products. It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it's not the NFL and the Rams, then it'll be cops and their supporters.
Seemingly in response, the NFL announced that no punishment will be given out to those five players. The Rams subsequently announced they did not plan to punish their players either, with Rams coach Jeff Fisher suggesting the players were exercising their right to free speech.
Then came the reports on Monday—during Monday Night Football—that Rams Vice President of Football Operations and COO Kevin Demoff reached out to the local police to, yes, apologize on behalf of the team.
Done and done.
Only, it wasn't.
Demoff replied to the original report on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website to state that he very much did not apologize. Semantics are as important here as optics, it seems. From StlToday.com:
This morning, I had phone conversations with both Chief Dotson and Chief Belmar regarding yesterday's events. I expressed to both of them that I felt badly that our players' support of the community was taken as disrespectful to law enforcement.
Later in the afternoon I had a positive meeting with Chief Dotson, Jeff Roorda, and Gabe Crocker at St. Louis city police headquarters to discuss with them how the Rams' organization and law enforcement could build upon the positive relationship we already have. We began a good dialogue but recognize there is work to be done to strengthen our relationship.
In none of these conversations did I apologize for our players' actions. I did say in each conversation that I regretted any offense their officers may have taken. We do believe it is possible to both support our players' First Amendment rights and support the efforts of local law enforcement as our community begins the process of healing.
Done and done again. Only, it seemed to just be getting started at that point.
In response to that response, the police decided to tweet out the definition of the word apology, as if this all boils down to a he-said/he-said during recess behind the middle school cafeteria.
Apology: "expression of regret for not being able to do something"
@kdemoff: "I regretted any offense their officers may have taken."
That horrifically immature social media post was echoed by a Facebook message titled "Regarding statements on an 'apology' from Rams COO Kevin Demoff" that detailed just how much the police considered Demoff's comments to be an apology, even if he refused to use the word.
This is the police of a major metropolitan American city engaging in a social media flame war with the local NFL team while the outskirts of their city were literally going up in flames. (What's the Twitter equivalent of wearing riot gear and rolling up in a tank, anyway?)
The conversation continued well into Tuesday, when the Rams, again, had to clarify their statements, with Demoff telling Sports Illustrated scribe Peter King, "We believe it is possible to both support our players' right to free speech and support our local law enforcement."
If you want a cross section of how America feels on this topic, look at the replies to King's tweet or the Facebook post from the police; you'll see indignant, impassioned replies from both sides of this issue. We certainly had that on our radio show, with opinions spanning the spectrum from support to admonition, seemingly broken down by geographic, political and racial divides.
How can a gesture be seen as a sign of support for a local community trying to heal and a culture trying to fight for the rights of all citizens and yet simultaneously be seen as a sign of disrespect to those who protect us, an affront to authority and, to some, the open support of anarchy?
Hands up can mean a lot of things.
It meant more than those five players could have ever imagined, and it's continued a conversation that until now had little, if anything, to do with sports.
In the wake of the grand jury decision, many athletes and celebrities tweeted out their displeasure with the situation. Some, like Charles Barkley, thought the grand jury got it right, and publicly denounced the rioting and looting going on in response to that decision. From the Daily News (New York), via 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia:
We have to be really careful with the cops, because if it wasn’t for the cops we would be living in the Wild, Wild West in our neighborhoods. We can’t pick out certain incidents that don’t go our way and act like the cops are all bad.... Do you know how bad some of these neighborhoods would be if it wasn't for the cops?
He's right, of course, and some—including the local police in St. Louis—have taken that sentiment, spun it around and thrust its meaning upon the gesture by the Rams players on Sunday. No one of sound and reasonable mind supports looting and more violence, but showing support for the community, and specifically those engaging in thoughtful, peaceful protests, is not the same as advocating violence.
There are people suggesting they will boycott the NFL because of that gesture. Commenters on the police Facebook page are calling on fans to quit watching football and supporting Rams sponsors because of what those players did. These are people who apparently have been watching until now, despite the Greg Hardy situation, Adrian Peterson situation and Ray Rice situation, to give three examples of cases that might lead someone to take a break from the league.
A silent gesture of community support is enough to get people to quit the NFL. A group that has organized to boycott the Rams has more than 20,000 likes and counting.
This is not our generation's 1968 Olympics, but with the never-ending circle of social media, it feels that way in this instant. This story, like others, will dissipate. Canter and the 19,999 some odd other folks will surely go back to watching Rams games once they get good enough for people to make the playoffs so everyone will forget there was a boycott in the first place.
The police will go back to their jobs of protecting and serving, and the football players will go back to only putting up their hands when they're trying to tell the referee they didn't pass interfere or hold or do whatever it is they did to warrant a flag.
The sports world will still keep spinning, and this moment may not change much of anything. Or it might.
If other players make similar gestures this coming week, the conversation will continue. If more people in the public spotlight speak out—on both sides of the situation—the story will continue, the narrative will go on and maybe next time there's a man walking down the street in broad daylight, be it with menace in his heart or not, the ending will be different.
If every player in the NFL put his hands up on the way out of the tunnel this week, or if they showed a sign of solidarity with the communities across the country still reeling from the decision in Ferguson by putting up their hands during the national anthem, what would the other side do? Would they boycott over a peaceful demonstration, and would anyone even notice they were gone?
To people in the Ferguson community, Brown could have been any one of them. For those Rams players, they know it could have been them too, at some point in their lives. Heck, even now, given their relative age, race and geographic locale.
That's what those hands were for on Sunday. Semantics, and all the fake apologies in the world shouldn't distract us from that.