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Wave of protest sweeps Bucs, NFL

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers Mike Evans, left, and DeSean Jackson kneel during the national anthem Sunday before the game against the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. Evans put his hand over his heart to respect the military.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers Mike Evans, left, and DeSean Jackson kneel during the national anthem Sunday before the game against the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. Evans put his hand over his heart to respect the military.
Published Sep. 25, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — On the Bucs team charter flight Saturday, receivers DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans sat next to each other and became outraged reading the comments that President Donald Trump made at a political rally in Alabama a night earlier.

Trump referred to NFL players who protested the national anthem as "sons of b------" and encouraged team owners to fire any player who would not stand for the Star-Spangled Banner.

Jackson made a decision during that flight to Minneapolis to not stand for the national anthem prior to Sunday's game, and Evans joined him.

"He said he was going to do it," Evans said. "And I said, 'I got your back.' "

The Bucs discussed the matter at a team meeting in the hotel Saturday night. Coach Dirk Koetter read statements by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and several NFL owners who had strong rebukes of Trump's words.

So when it came time for Sunday's game, Jackson and Evans knelt on one knee behind their teammates, many of whom locked arms. Both players had their right hand over their hearts in what Evans described as "for the troops."

"I just felt the things that have been going on and the things that have been said is blatant disrespect," Jackson said Sunday following the Bucs' 34-17 loss to the Vikings. "You know, my mom is a queen. We're not sons of any b's and personally we had messages throughout the league with a lot of colleagues. Other teams, other friends we have in the league, we wanted to be able to stand in unity. We wanted to be bigger than what's going on.

"He's supposed to be running our country, not tweeting, texting and speaking on NFL guys and what their rights are. It's crazy to me. He's a joke. He's a clown and I speak how I see it."

Jackson and Evans were not alone Sunday. All over the NFL, there were similar signs of solidarity.

The Pittsburgh Steelers became the first to decide to sit out of the national anthem as a team, remaining in the visitor's locker room at Soldier Field before their game against the Chicago Bears. However, Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, an Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, stood in the tunnel during the anthem with his hand over his heart.

In Nashville, no players on either the Seattle Seahawks or Tennessee Titans were on the sidelines for the anthem. When Titans players entered the field walking together, arms locked, they were greeted with boos.

In Foxboro, Mass., quarterback Tom Brady stood with his hand over his heart and locked his left arm with a teammate while about 20 Patriots kneeled. They were greeted with loud boos and chants of "Stand up!"

A day after Trump's comments, the NFL and the NFL Players Association issued responses to his statements.

Goodell responded by saying the president's "divisive comments" reveal an "unfortunate lack of respect" for the league and the contributions players make to their communities. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, echoed the players' outrage.

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"We will never back down," Smith titled his statement. "We no longer can afford to stick to sports."

Last year, Evans sat during the national anthem prior to the Bucs' Nov. 13 game against Chicago in Tampa to protest Trump's election. He apologized two days later for offending anyone in the military and stood for the anthem the remainder of the year.

"When the president has singled out athletes, or African-American athletes, myself and my other colleagues that took a knee just have different beliefs than him," Evans said Sunday. "It was very childish on his part. It seems like he's trying to divide us. I think this is an opportunity for me to do what I can. A lot of guys around the league did it and I understand why.

"People are going to misconstrue and turn it to make it depict a different picture than it really is. I love the military. Like I said last year when I sat, it's nothing against the military at all. The anthem is different for other people. People say it's unpatriotic. But it's unpatriotic for the president not to respect our rights."

Koetter said he felt the issue needed to be addressed as a team prior to Sunday's game.

"I showed the players the quote that the commissioner came out with," Koetter said. "I showed the players the quotes from a couple of the owners . . . We had a little discussion as a team, opened it up for player participation. I'm not aware of what's happening during our game until after the fact, and our ownership has put out a statement, and obviously I stand behind that."

Executive vice president Joel Glazer released a statement shortly after the game began.

"As we have stated previously, the Buccaneers recognize every individual's constitutional right to freedom of speech," the statement read, "which is crucial to the American way of life we cherish. We are equally committed to the principles of inclusivity and respect for differing points of view that should be afforded to all Americans."

Some of Trump's most loyal supporters in the NFL had strong rebukes of his comments, including Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who each contributed $1 million to his inauguration.

Khan locked arms with his players, as did head coach Doug Marrone, prior to the Jaguars' game against Baltimore at Wembley Stadium in London.

The Patriots, Falcons, Broncos, Ravens, Dolphins, Eagles, Bills, Colts, Seahawks, Browns and Lions all released statements supporting their players' right to peacefully protest and calling for unity.

DeSean Jackson's mother, Gayle, went to Twitter in support of her son Sunday morning.

"Sovereign Immunity at its best when it gives U a public platform to attack NFL players' Mothers," she tweeted. "I support my son kneeling before God today."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.