TAMPA — Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans stood at his locker Wednesday afternoon surrounded by a bank of cameras, microphones and tape recorders. For nearly seven minutes he was peppered with questions about his national anthem protest of the election of Donald Trump as president.
Hey, Mike, what have the last 72 hours been like? Why did you apologize? Any regrets? Are you really going to stand for the anthem from now on?
Mike, would you do it all again?
And after 72 hours and those nearly seven minutes, this much is clear: Evans, 23, is an impressive man.
You can disagree with his politics, as is your right. And you can disagree with his method of protesting, as is also your right. But how he has handled himself is what America is truly all about.
For the record, Evans is still upset about Trump, but he vowed to stand for the national anthem from now on.
"When I was a kid, man, I used to love standing for the national anthem, and I still love standing for the national anthem," Evans said. "I think of our troops, but most importantly, I think of the American population and everybody as a whole. And I think of our leader. I think of who our leader is, so it's going to be some foggy area there. But I will stand."
As soon as word spread Sunday that Evans sat during the national anthem before the home game against the Bears, he was on the receiving end of heavy criticism.
"It was what I expected," Evans said. "Some people were saluting me. Some people showed a lot of heat and a lot of hate. (Trump's election is) the problem that I had, and that's why I did what I did. I can't change it."
In some ways, the vitriol directed at Evans only proved his point.
"I mean, I just want people to understand you can't hate somebody because they have different beliefs or different views than you, and that's the problem," Evans said. "Not everybody grows up the same. Everybody is exposed to different things growing up. That's why I did what I did."
Makes sense, doesn't it?
But that didn't stop Evans from taking heat. That included criticism from local elected officials, whose first priority should be upholding the Constitution. Instead, they felt it was more important to talk about boycotting a franchise that does as much as anyone for the military. Instead they shamefully tried to use their power to intimidate, belittle and silence a peaceful protester.
"I know it hits home for a lot of people, and this city of Tampa is big for the military, and I know I hurt a lot of people by doing what I did, so I want to apologize to them," Evans said. "To the people that were really affected by what I did and to the people that are disappointed in my decision to not stand with teammates — from now on, don't worry, I'm going to continue to use my voice and my platform for minority rights."
For Evans, that means all minorities.
"On the field, I'm going to continue to do what I do and play hard," Evans said. "I'm playing hard because I've got this right, I've got this freedom from the vets. … I'm going to reach out to organizations that are doing the best job to help minorities, women, LBGT, African-Americans, Latinos — the people that are in fear of the president."
That was Evans at his most powerful. Because whether you support Trump or not, shouldn't we be listening to the concerns of our citizens? Shouldn't the first reaction be, "Hey, I hear you. Maybe you have a point that I can't understand or relate to. What is it exactly? What are you scared of? What are your concerns? What can we do to make this all better?"
Nope, instead we heard about boycotts and burning jerseys and threats and people calling him an idiot and a thug, the latter of which is an insult with serious racial overtones. Even after he apologized, even after he explained why he didn't vote in the election and took responsibility for it, he hasn't been forgiven by some.
After Sunday's game, I wrote a column supporting Evans' right to peacefully protest and championing Bucs tackle Demar Dotson's right to back Trump. I pointed out how these two teammates get along despite political differences and how they should be an example of how all of us can move forward in unity.
Many felt that Evans was disrespecting the military. While I don't think he was, I do understand that line of thinking. But the overwhelming majority of comments and emails I received frighteningly confirmed that racism and divisiveness are alive and well.
I was told to move to another country. I was called "un-American." Another called Evans "un-American." Several emails included the n-word. One reader spent 1,000 words talking about black-on-black crime. Another told me how it's "white America's time now." All because I defended someone's rights under the First Amendment.
Just as when I supported Colin Kaepernick's right to protest by kneeling for the anthem, I was left shaken at the level of hatred and bigotry in the responses.
I'm a 51-year-old white man who was left completely disheartened and fearful. Imagine the feelings of a 23-year-old minority like Evans?
Yet, Evans has handled himself maturely and gracefully, and he has done it entirely by himself with no outside influence, including from the Bucs.
He got his message out. When he learned he offended some, he apologized and vowed not to offend them again. Yet he stood by his original political message.
He has done everything he can do to make this right.
So now what are you going to do? Help Evans build a bridge or put up a wall?