The plan had been for Vice President Mike Pence to attend the Indianapolis Colts game at which Peyton Manning's number is to be retired, a gala celebration of the former Colts quarterback's contributions to Pence's home state.
The former governor of Indiana and his wife, wearing a Manning No. 18 jersey, left Lucas Oil Stadium after the national anthem, following instructions from President Donald Trump after a number of San Francisco 49ers players took a knee during the anthem.
"I asked VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled," Trump tweeted. I am proud of him and SecondLady Karen."
Pence said he chose to leave because "we should rally around our Flag."
"I left today's Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem. At a time when so many Americans are inspiring our nation with their courage, resolve, and resilience, now, more than ever, we should rally around our Flag and everything that unites us," he said in a statement. "While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don't think it's too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem. I stand with President Trump, I stand with our soldiers, and I will always stand for our Flag and our National Anthem."
Pence's response appears to have been triggered by the decision of between 15 to 23 members of the 49ers to take a knee during the anthem, as many NFL players have done to raise awareness of social injustice and racial inequality. Members of the Colts stood for the anthem with arms linked.
Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the 49ers, started the protests to raise awareness of social injustice and racial inequality in the summer of 2016. Pence's decision comes at a time when Kaepernick has reiterated that, should an NFL team sign him, he would now stand for the anthem. Kaepernick had said as much when he became a free agent in March, explaining he did not want his protest to detract from the positive change he believes has been created, ESPN reported then. He added that the national conversation that ensued last year, as well as the support he received from NFL and NBA players, among others, affirmed his message.
Although players have stressed that the demonstrations are not meant to disparage military members of the anthem, Pence's decision to leave revives the story of players protesting social injustice and racial inequality this season.
Throughout this season, players have taken a knee. They have linked arms. Some have raised a defiant fist to the sky in the face of presidential directives to the owners of their teams to fire or suspend them. And as their season settles into the critical second quarter, they have sought to pivot toward taking positive action and refining their message.
Away from Indianapolis, other players around the league, like Olivier Vernon of the New York Giants, continued to kneel Sunday, but most stood and linked arms as many have acknowledged that that their message was becoming misinterpreted, co-opted by some who were claiming it was aimed at military members rather than police brutality. So players, who had urged Commissioner Roger Goodell to designate a month to raise awareness, have taken a new approach over the last few weeks, in part because they were hearing boos from fans during the anthem. In Green Bay, players heard it loud and clear late last month after asking fans to join them in linking arms. Not many did and there were boos during the song.
"Beauty is, it's a free country so they can choose to do it or not. The messaging towards this unfortunately needs to continue to be redirected, I think. It's never been about the national anthem. It's never been about the military." quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We're all patriotic in the locker room. We love our troops. This is about something bigger than that - an invitation to show unity in the face of some divineness from the top in this country and I'm proud of our guys."
The message was muddled over the first month of the season, with Trump calling for NFL owners to suspend or fire players who took a knee for the anthem, calling any who do, in a veiled reference to Kaepernick, a "son of a bitch." A false, Photoshopped image of the Seattle Seahawks' Michael Bennett burning a flag in the locker room became a widely shared meme designed to stir up passions. The Seahawks took the next step in their activism, announcing the creation of an educational fund.
"In an effort to create lasting change and build a more compassionate and inclusive society, we are launching the Seahawks Players Equality & Justice for All Action Fund to support education and leadership programs addressing equality and justice," the team tweeted Sept. 29. "We invite you to join us in donating and taking action."
The efforts may not have led to results that are more conversational than nationally tangible, but the players pledge that their activism will not end and it's likely to become an issue again if it shows up in the president's Twitter feed. In their memo to Goodell, Bennett, Philadelphia Eagles Torrey Smith and Malcolm Jenkins and retired player Anquan Boldin requested that the NFL designate a month, as it does for Breast Cancer awareness in October, to highlight player activism and community engagement.
"To counter the vast amount of press attention being referred to as the 'national anthem protests' versus the large amount of grass roots work that many players around the league have invested their time and resources, we would like to request a league wide initiative that would include a month dedicated to a campaign initiative and related events," the memo stated. "Similarly to what the league already implements for breast cancer awareness, honoring military, etc., we would like November to serve as a month of Unity for individual teams to engage and impact the community in their market."
Their activism has taken root, down to the high school level and over to the NBA, where players have traditionally been more vocal because, among other reasons, their contracts are guaranteed. Although Trump cited declining TV ratings for the NFL, those have improved as the games have and as areas in Texas and Florida have begun to recover from hurricane damage. Players are not backing down, even though the question has always been how to use their platform. Stick to sports? That's not going to happen, no matter the consequences.
"I've heard people say that my colleagues and I are un-American and unpatriotic," Jenkins wrote in a Washington Post essay. "Well, we want to make America great. We want to help make our country safe and prosperous. We want a land of justice and equality. True patriotism is loving your country and countrymen enough to want to make it better."