Former Bengals safety George Iloka told Elise Jesse of WLWT the players held a meeting after President Donald Trump suggested owners should release any player who took a knee during the anthem, but they couldn't reach a consensus about how to move forward.
"It was about 50 percent African Americans and 50 percent of my Caucasian brothers and it was only about 30 people," Iloka said Monday. "The meeting left pretty much just like, the African American players feeling like we want to kneel, and then it was the white players telling us, 'You guys don't need to do that.'"
An anonymous player said the situation led to an emergency meeting Saturday night during which Brown addressed the organization.
"He just begged, like really begged," the player told Jesse. "That was my first time seeing or hearing anything like that—very emotional. That was my only time seeing that it was different. The bottom line is that he was begging us, please do not kneel. He didn't want the backfire that was going to come from it."
Another member of the 2017 Bengals explained Brown feared backlash from the fans.
"He pretty much says, 'I don't want you guys kneeling.' He said our fans will crush us," the player said.
Iloka said the owner's comments created an internal conflict in large part because players saw former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick fail to receive a contract during the 2017 free-agency period after starting the anthem movement in 2016.
"My heart was beating because he's the owner, and you already saw what happened to Kaepernick," Iloka told Jesse.
Kaepernick's actions have become a talking point again over the past month amid worldwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality, the same issues at the heart of the 2016 movement, after George Floyd was killed while in Minneapolis Police custody in May.
Ultimately, no Bengals players took a knee before the team's 27-24 overtime loss to the Packers.
"Mr. Brown met with all players while the team was in Green Bay. A positive and open discussion ensued," a team spokesperson said in a statement to WLWT. "Mr. Brown shared with players his preference, but said he was not directing them what to do."
Linebacker Preston Brown, who was with the Buffalo Bills in 2017, called not kneeling after Trump's comments his "biggest regret," but added he probably wouldn't have landed in Cincinnati as a free agent in 2018 if he would have knelt, per Jesse.
"If I were to take a knee that day, I definitely wouldn't have played for the Bengals,' he said. "It was in OTAs or something like that, we had a meeting of like 20 guys, and they asked me and Cordy [Glenn] because we came from Buffalo where guys had taken a knee, and they said, 'We are not going to do that here. We don't need that attention. We don't need that type of display of protest,' and that was something that was weird to me."
The Bengals spokesperson told WLWT the team hasn't decided how to handle potential protests during the 2020 NFL season.
Cincinnati is scheduled to start the regular season at home Sept. 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers.