Beyond the Anthem: Inside NFL Locker Rooms on Trump, Kap, Charlottesville & Race

photo of Mike FreemanMike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 8, 2017

Like many men across many NFL locker rooms, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith recently found himself traveling back in time. This is what happens to many players in the age of Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump and the events of Charlottesville.

In Smith's case, his mind took him to middle school. It was one of three times police drew their weapons on him.

"I was in eighth grade; the other guys were in high school," Smith says. "Just going down the street. Some guys were driving fast in the neighborhood, causing trouble. Next thing you know, the cops roll up, guns drawn, banging on the window. My hands are shaking in the air, standing in the street while they called for backup. I got searched down to my boxers. It was just guilt by association."

NFL locker rooms have changed dramatically over the past few years. In many ways, they have gone from places that were once barely political. Then came Trump. Then came Kaepernick. Then came Charlottesville.

The volatile mix of race, protest and presidential politics has made NFL locker rooms a cauldron of activism. Kaepernick was the spark, but since him, other circumstances in the country have forced players to look in the mirror. In turn, they have become more political.

QB Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers in 2016
QB Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers in 2016Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press

During politically sensitive times in the pastsuch as following the attacks on September 11, the start of the Iraq War or even when issues like gay marriage or gay teammates in the locker room dominated headlinesplayers largely kept their opinions to themselves. They'd tell you their feelings off the record. They were political, but they rarely wanted to express their political beliefs outside the locker room.

Regarding issues such as the nation being at war, locker rooms and NFL teams can be more militaristic places. Most players backed the United States’ wars.

There were also players who didn't like President Obama, but again, few publicly spoke about their dislike of him.

What changed was Trump, and, players say, how he has encouraged racial divide. They see Trump and the actions of some police as inseparable.

They feel they have no choice but to speak out. That's why so many have.

"I haven't seen locker rooms more energized than I've seen them now," says Cleveland Browns defensive back Jason McCourty.

The Browns are one of a number of teams whose players have taken a knee during the national anthem, continuing what Kaepernick started over a year ago. The protests increased after Charlottesville, where white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed, and players believe this season will feature even more pregame anthem activism.

Speaking out became even more of an imperative after Seattle's Michael Bennett wrote Wednesday about an incident in which an officer allegedly held a gun to his head and threatened to fire.

After that, other players, including teammate Richard Sherman, spoke of their own experiences with police.

The topicand players speaking out about itisn't going away anytime soon.

There are still some locker rooms where the ugliness and thorniness of today's politics are too messy to discuss. New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said his teammates don't discuss politics in their locker room. The Saints, however, are now more of a rarity in the NFL.

B/R Mag spoke to four playersa mix of veterans and younger players from around the countryon several topics. Smith won Super Bowl XLVII with the Baltimore Ravens and has played for three teams. McCourty is one of the more respected players in the league and has been on the Tennessee Titans and Browns. Vaccaro has been with the Saints since 2013. Green Bay cornerback Damarious Randall is entering his third year with the Packers.

Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro
Saints safety Kenny VaccaroJonathan Bachman/Associated Press/Associated Press

Based on conversations with these playersand numerous others who declined to speak on the recordit's clear all four have many peers in locker rooms across the league silently nodding in agreement with their perspectives. Interestingly, each of the four players interviewed says if they were to win a Super Bowl during the Trump regime, they would refuse to attend the traditional White House team visit.

Our reporting team of Matt Miller, Mike Tanier and Mike Freeman asked the players four questions (or variations of them):

1. Did Charlottesville change the situation for athletes who protest?

2. What did Charlottesville say about American society?

3. Are you able to talk to Trump supporters about politics?

4. If your team wins the Super Bowl, will you visit the White House?

Their answers were honest and important. Mostly, the answers demonstrate how things have changed in locker rooms as society has. A short time ago, players would have been hesitant to give these types of blunt answers. Now, however, players feel the need to speak out, and they don't fear the repercussions from teams and the league as they once did.

McCourty, only half-joking, calls this "The Kaepernick Effect."

"Colin got the conversation going," McCourty says. "But the rest of us are going to keep that conversation going."

Smith is asked what he would have said to the Tiki torch-bearing white nationalists who marched on the University of Virginia campus last month.

"I just know that hate is something learned," Smith says. "No one is born that way. And bias is something learned. You can learn not to hate. A lot of times, it’s an affirmation bias. They’ve never really seen the other side, the perspective of someone who has had this kind of experience."


Torrey Smith

(as interviewed by Mike Tanier)

Did Charlottesville change the situation for athletes who protest?

I think it changed things. Before, a lot of us were protesting brutality and inequality, stuff like that. In Charlottesville, suddenly it was, 'Whoa, a race rally?' I think that really made real for some people what we are talking about, whether guys are protesting during the anthem or going back, being active in the community.

What did Charlottesville say about American society?

It didn't demonstrate anything that many of us haven't known for a long, long time.

(Smith then segues into personal stories of race without being asked.)

I've always been the good guy: don't drink, don't smoke, don't do anything. But I've had guns drawn on me by the police three times in my life: college, high school and middle school. And I still have little girls, and kids walk up, point to me and say, 'Hey, he’s black.'"

New Eagles WR Torrey Smith
New Eagles WR Torrey SmithMitchell Leff/Getty Images

Are you able to talk to Trump supporters about politics?

Heck, I could talk to one of the guys who was in that [Charlottesville] rally. I have never been shy about speaking out. I’m always firm in my convictions.

If the Eagles win the Super Bowl, will you visit the White House?

No. Because I don't respect the man.


Kenny Vaccaro

(as interviewed by Matt Miller)

Charlottesville laid bare some things that have been festering for a long time. What's your worst racist fan story from playing?

I remember back in high school, I switched to a different school for my senior year, and during our first game, the other team's crowd started yelling racial slurs at me before the game. I'm from a small, country town with a lot of people that aren't fond of black people. Even though I'm half-white and half-black, just being black in general has always made it more challenging when it came to a lot of things in life. It's made me a stronger person today.

You clearly want to win the Super Bowl, as every team does at this point in the year. If you win, would you go to a White House with Donald Trump in office?

No, I probably wouldn't.

How do you talk to a Trump-supporting teammate now? Do you talk politics with them at all?

We don't talk politics in the locker room.

How do you feel about your team not signing Kaepernick?

It's ridiculous that he isn't on a team. To not even be on a roster for camp is just crazy. He's a good person and doesn't need to be punished for what he believes in. I get it that his play has regressed, and that happens to everyone at some point in their career, but to not be at least a backup over some of these guys on different teams is absurd.


Jason McCourty

(as interviewed by Mike Freeman)

If you won the Super Bowl, would you go to the White House with Trump in office?

Probably not. Pretty sure no. I respect the office of the president, but with him being there, wouldn't be able to go. (He laughs.) But first things first, we need to win a Super Bowl, then I'll worry about it.

Do you talk politics with a Trump-supporting teammate?

Not here [in Cleveland], at least not extensively. I haven't dived into much of that just yet.

But in Tennessee, we did all the time. We had some very heated debates in that locker room about Trump. They would get intense. I always walked away, though, feeling encouraged because we could disagree about that so strongly but still be teammates.

I always felt like NFL locker rooms were a good example for the rest of America. You can disagree with someone, even hate their ideas, but in the end, we're all Americans. We can all still get along.

Charlottesville laid bare some things that have been festering for a long time. What's your worst racist fan story from playing?

I don't have a worst story. I'd say some of the things some fans say when you play at away games are very questionable. Things some fans yell when you come onto the field, things like that.


Damarious Randall

(as interviewed by Matt Miller)

Packers safety Damarious Randall signing a jersey
Packers safety Damarious Randall signing a jerseyMatt Ludtke/Associated Press/Associated Press

Charlottesville laid bare some things that have been festering for a long time. What's your worst racist fan story from playing?

Well, actually, last year at the Dallas game. We were up early on, maybe 24-3, and you know how close the visitor sideline is to their fans. So it was almost like you could have a conversation with a fan. And just after every TD, I would celebrate and I get animated with fans. Then it was this guy every time we did something, I would celebrate and I would see him flipping me off. So after that, after every time we’d score, I’d look at him and ask what’s up. We were basically going back and forth then every time. Dallas started coming back, and I’d come sit on the sideline, and he’d be all up in my ear, trying to make it hostile. Long story short, after we won the game and made the FG, fans started talking and using the N-word. The same guy even threw his drink at me, which I dodged. ... if the drink had hit me, there would have been a brawl on the news. But I don’t let what people say get to me.

You clearly want to win the Super Bowl, as every team does at this point in the year. If you win, would you go to a White House with Donald Trump in office?

Me personally, I would not go to the White House.

How do you talk to a Trump-supporting teammate now? Do you talk politics with them at all?

We have an open-minded locker room. People can speak whenever they want to speak. We have a lot of friendly guys where everyone gets along. Guys voiced their opinions, but at the end of the day, when you walk into the halls, everyone knows we’re a team. Nobody walks around thinking, "I’m going to avoid this guy 'cause he voted for Trump." That’s why I love playing for the Packers.

How do you feel about your team not signing Kaepernick?

I don’t think we need another QB. Our first string is pretty good (laughs), and our backup is no slouch. But for the teams that do need a QB, I don’t know if it’s a money issue, or maybe they don’t think he’s worth what he’s asking for. But with that being said, some of these teams have starters that aren’t as good as Kap. I don’t understand why you’re not trying to make your team better. I don’t get why you got a problem since all publicity is good publicity. I don’t think that should play into a factor of if he’s on a team or not.

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