Players Aren't Planning to Lose Culture War with NFL, Trump Without a Fight

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 20, 2018

Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (98), inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard (59) and defensive end Jurrell Casey (99) raise their fists after the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/James Kenney)
James Kenney/Associated Press

Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey announced this week that he will protest during the national anthem this season. It's a brave and patriotic move that will likely become another symbolic mortar round in the culture war between the NFL and President Donald Trump.

Yet there is more to this story. Possibly a lot more.

Two players told B/R they don't expect Casey to be alone. The players, who asked not to be identified due to fear of reprisal from Trump and his supporters, believe there could be at least a half-dozen players across the league who could join Casey in protest.

In the end, it's unknown if six players, a dozen or only a few will join Casey. What we do know is that Casey represents a resistance some players have to the NFL's edict that players cease protesting on the sideline, and to Trump himself.

It can't be emphasized enough how big a deal this is. Casey is a star, a three-time Pro Bowler who has tremendous clout throughout the NFL. If he and other players continue protesting, it illustrates that the wave started by Colin Kaepernick in kneeling for the national anthem is no mere look-at-us moment, but a new sports civil-rights movement.

It also shows that the players won't back down no matter who puts pressure on them. That takes real courage. True patriotism.

If you want to understand just how nasty and bloody a fight this is going to be, look no further than what the Dolphins are allegedly proposing.

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the Dolphins might suspend players for protesting during the anthem.

If true, not only would such a policy lead to massive anger from players around the sport, it would also mark, quite frankly, one of the lowest points in the history of NFL labor relations. Less than a year after making a big show of standing in solidarity with players on the sidelines, the owners would be daring their own players to try it again. Don't think those players will accept that idea happily.

What it means in the short term is also clear: The NFL's ban on protesting during the national anthem continues to backfire, and the brawl between the NFL and the president—started by the president—is guaranteed to continue.

Trump has turned the NFL into a political prop, and he will probably keep doing that through the mid-term elections. With that as a backdrop, the rhetoric from the White House is likely to become even nastier than it has been.

The president hosted a 'Celebration of America' after he canceled a visit to the White House by the Philadelphia Eagles following their Super Bowl win.
The president hosted a 'Celebration of America' after he canceled a visit to the White House by the Philadelphia Eagles following their Super Bowl win.Susan Walsh/Associated Press/Associated Press

Already, the president has all but labeled players as un-American. In 2017, Trump tweeted that kneeling players showed "total disrespect for our great country." Later, while speaking of those players, Trump said that NFL owners should, "Get that son of a bitch off the field."

The NFL, terrified of Trump and his supporters, tried to quiet the debate by passing a rule that players must either "stand and show respect for the flag and anthem" or stay in the locker room. If a player doesn't, the NFL can fine the team. And if what the Dolphins may be proposing happens, the team could also fine the player directly.

Despite the changes, the president still attacked the NFL. And with an electoral season at hand, the NFL is sure to make for a good political punching bag for Trump to sell his vision.

Undaunted, the NFL Players Association filed a grievance this month against the NFL, saying the new protest policy changed without negotiation, which is an infringement on player rights. On Thursday, the NFL and union released a joint statement, saying any changes to the anthem policy are on hold as they try to finalize a solution that makes both owners and players happy.

But it's impossible to have any faith in a league that allowed this mess to get this far in the first place. And there is no NFL policy that can account for the maelstrom surrounding national politics these days.

This part of the culture war is going to be fought, and there is no amount of appeasement from the NFL that can stop it.

This is the backdrop that Casey and potentially other NFL players will find themselves in.

"I'm going to take a fine this year, why not?" Casey told CNN's Motez Bishara. "I'm going to protest during the flag. That's what I'm going to say now. ... I ain't going to let them stop me from doing what I want to do. If they want to have these battles between players and organizations, this is the way it's going to be."

Overlooked in Casey's statement is part of what is driving the players to keep up the fight: that they are disturbed by the NFL's new protest rules.

The admiration players have for Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey is likely to convince players around the league to join him in protesting during the national anthem this season.
The admiration players have for Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey is likely to convince players around the league to join him in protesting during the national anthem this season.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

"Around the NFL, guys are definitely not happy about it," Casey said. "I feel it's not right, I don't think it was a good decision for the NFL to come up with that ruling. But they have their reasons for what they've done."

In many ways, Casey is the perfect player to lead this fight against the NFL and Trump. He's immensely popular and respected among the players. He's is one of the true leaders in the sport, and the kind of presence players need to keep fighting the league and the president of the United States for their right to express their feelings peacefully.

And he may not be alone.