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Bucs can express themselves as they choose during anthem

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) wears custom cleats to represent Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) as part of the NFL???‚??„?s "My Cause, My Cleats Campaign" before the start of a football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) wears custom cleats to represent Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) as part of the NFL???‚??„?s "My Cause, My Cleats Campaign" before the start of a football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.
Published Aug. 24, 2017

TAMPA — Each time Dirk Koetter walks through the door of his office at One Buc Place, he passes by the only jersey framed on his wall.

It's the No. 42 Arizona State jersey worn by Pat Tillman, who left the NFL and a $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to enlist in the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and become an Army Ranger.

Koetter never coached Tillman, but he was the Sun Devils' coach in 2004 when Tillman was killed at age 27 as the result of friendly fire while serving in Afghanistan.

"Here's a guy that gave up a multimillion-dollar contract to go fight for his country and do it with his brother (Kevin)," Koetter said of Tillman, "and he didn't come back."

So there is no mystery about where Koetter stands when it comes to the national anthem.

"My personal view is I'll be standing on the 50-yard line (before a game) with my hand over my heart," Koetter said. "That's what I believe in. You got plenty of guys that believe in that. But again, we're not all the same."

Protesters gathered outside the NFL's headquarters in New York on Wednesday to support former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who can't find a job as a free agent after his decision to kneel during the anthem last season.

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The Browns, who visit the Bucs on Saturday, had 12 players take a knee before their Monday night game against the Giants, motivated by the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., the previous weekend.

Against this backdrop, Koetter used about 20 minutes of a team meeting Tuesday to discuss the social injustice that has led to these protests.

The bottom line: Bucs players will be allowed to express themselves during the anthem however they choose.

"Coach opened it up about the national anthem and guys protesting and sitting down, letting us know that we can do what we want," cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said. "He let us know how he felt, and then he opened up the whole team room to anyone who had anything to say: Stand up and preach your opinion."

So they did, a few at first. A larger discussion spilled over into the locker room, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.

Last season, receiver Mike Evans sat for the anthem in Week 11 — on Military Appreciation Day, and in the city that is home to MacDill Air Force Base and the United States Central Command — to protest the election of President Donald Trump. He received a lot of negative feedback and lost endorsements. His protest lasted one game, and Evans apologized.

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Evans said last week he supports Seahawks and former Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett, who has decided to sit during the national anthem this year to protest racial injustice.

"This issue we're dealing with in the world is bigger than football, it's bigger than sports, and guys are trying to make stands," McCoy said. "The thing I like about Dirk is he lets everybody be individuals. He lets you be you. And he opened for discussion, 'Hey, if anybody has an opinion, let's talk about it.'

"And that's the problem with society now. Everybody wants to get mad and fight. Nobody wants to talk about the situation no more because you don't even know why a person thinks the way they think or feels the way they feel, and they know how you feel."

The Bucs, Rays and Lightning last week jointly announced a donation to help publicly fund the relocation of a Confederate statue from the old Tampa courthouse to a private cemetery in Brandon.

"We've got to love each other, and everybody just wants to fight," McCoy said. "And Dirk, he opened it up to us and let us have a conversation because we're a team. We've got to be a family. If we're going to talk about this, I'm going to let everybody have free rein, free will to feel how you feel. But after we stress it, we're going to move forward.

"It was just great to have that moment, and even afterward, the dialogue spread to the locker room and guys were really able to understand why a guy felt the way they felt.

Players said the meeting enabled them to become even more galvanized as a team.

"It was good," tackle Donovan Smith said. "To sit there and have a coach touch on an issue like that, for everybody to have an open forum, it was real good for our team."

Koetter said the meeting was an effort to understand and respect everyone's position.

"This is a nationwide and a worldwide issue," Koetter said. "We're not going to solve it in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team meeting. For me to come out and say everything that was said, that's not the point, but we did talk about it."

Staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report.

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