Jones: Rather than criticizing anthem protests, we should be asking about the reasons for them

Bucs wide receivers Mike Evans (13) and DeSean Jackson (11) kneel during the national anthem. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Bucs wide receivers Mike Evans (13) and DeSean Jackson (11) kneel during the national anthem. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Sept. 25, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — They are football players. They are teammates. They are Tampa Bay Bucs.

But before that, they are something else.

They are Americans. And they are human beings.

And that gives Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson the right to do what they did Sunday.

As the national anthem played before their game against the Vikings, they knelt and placed their hands over their hearts.

RELATED: Who took a knee? How each NFL team responded to Donald Trump's tweets about anthem protests

Peacefully, they protested the divisive words of the president. Without violence, they protested the leader of this country calling them "sons of b------.'' Causing harm to no one, they let it be known that President Trump does not represent them.

I can't think of anything more American than that. Regardless of your politics, regardless of whom you voted for in last year's election, regardless of how you feel about President Trump, can't we all agree that our freedoms are what make this country so great?

The freedom to speak out against injustice. The freedom to challenge and disagree with our leaders. The freedom to speak our minds without being persecuted, even if that persecution comes in the form of boos or boycotts. Or angry tweets. That's what separates us from the countries run by dictators.

It doesn't matter that Evans and Jackson are rich. It doesn't matter that they play football for a living. It doesn't matter when they speak out. Your bank account and profession and timing of your protest doesn't mean you are afforded fewer rights than any other American. In fact, one could argue that they have even more to lose than most Americans because of who they are. Just ask Colin Kaepernick.

"I'm a firm believer that everyone has their own rights,'' Jackson said.

Both men spoke calmly and eloquently after the game. Their words were measured, but stern. Their tone was serious, but not confrontational. They looked you in the eye when they spoke. These were men committed to their beliefs and yet you could sense they were deeply hurt and troubled.

You can disagree with them. You can disagree with how and where they protest. That's your right as an American. But instead of criticizing how and where they protest, shouldn't we be asking why they are protesting? That's the conversation that should be taking place and it's everyone's responsibility, whether you catch footballs or lead the free world.

RELATED: Bucs' Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson kneel during national anthem

Do they have a point about racial injustice and feeling that their president is against and not for them? Here's how I would answer that: I'm a middle-aged white man so I can't even begin to know what it's like to be a young African-American. For me to dismiss their grievances is as ignorant as it is contemptuous. I would like to think I'm smart enough to know what I don't know, and that maybe minorities have a better idea than me about what it's like to be a minority.

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But, ultimately, this all comes back to having the right to speak up. For more than 200 years, our soldiers have fought and died to protect those rights.

That's why Evans and Jackson put their hands over their hearts.

RELATED: Trump says objection to NFL protests 'has nothing to do with race'

"I did (that) for the troops and military,'' Evans said. "People are going to try to misconstrue and depict a different picture than what it really is. … People say it is unpatriotic to kneel. But it is unpatriotic of the president for not respecting our rights.''

What's interesting is this whole anthem protest had pretty much quieted down until President Trump practically dared more protests by criticizing NFL players at a rally last week. It also would appear that Trump's attacks have unified the players.

Across the NFL, dozens of players protested Sunday. More will follow in the coming weeks. Evans might continue doing so, and he knows criticism is coming. Just like it did last year when he took a knee before one game.

"I don't care about the criticism at all,'' Evans said. "It is coming from the people that support President Trump and I obviously don't. More and more people are starting to lean the other way and see his true colors. I hope that America and the people that are following him are seeing that he is trying to divide us.''

Maybe you agree with that. Maybe you don't. But we all should agree Evans has the right to say that. After all, he is an American. And to deny him that right is un-American.

Contact Tom Jones at Follow @tomwjones