How the player who wasn't there won the day

The visuals all across the NFL, from Lambeau Field to London, declared an unemployed quarterback named Colin Kaepernick as the biggest winner of the day. He started this movement by sitting next to some Gatorade buckets 13 months ago during a preseason playing of the national anthem, and it is possible he paid for that protest with the rest of his NFL career.

But this was Kaepernick’s defining moment Sunday, far more significant than his two playoff conquests of Aaron Rodgers and his NFC Championship Game victory over Atlanta in 2013. Dozens of NFL players took a knee during the anthem — Kaepernick’s revised form of protesting police brutality and racial inequities in society — and at night, around the bend from the White House, a whole procession of Raiders took a seat before playing Washington. The Steelers, Titans and Seahawks declined to take the field for the anthem. Scores of players, coaches and owners stood on two continents with arms locked in a show of unity after President Donald Trump profanely called for the firings of men who had peacefully exercised their First Amendment rights.

Professional football players weren’t alone in expressing their dissent over the weekend. Bruce Maxwell, Oakland A’s catcher, became the first MLB player to drop to a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The entire Garfield High football team took a knee in Seattle. Stevie Wonder, legendary singer, took two knees at a New York music festival. Rico LaVelle, national anthem singer at the Falcons-Lions game in Detroit, took a knee at the close of the song and then raised his right fist in the air.

“If we don’t protest, how are we going to get our voices heard?” Marlin Briscoe, the first African-American to start a pro football game at quarterback, told ESPN.com by phone. “I’ve supported everything Kaepernick and those who followed have done.”

Nicknamed “The Magician,” Briscoe was busy in his Long Beach, California, home on Sunday watching Deshaun Watson, Houston’s rookie quarterback, take on Tom Brady in New England. Briscoe thinks Watson plays his style of football, but the rules of engagement have dramatically changed for black quarterbacks over the past five decades. In 1968, after the Denver Broncos of the old American Football League drafted him as a defensive back, Briscoe had to insist on a three-day tryout at quarterback, his position at Omaha University.

Briscoe aced the tryout, ultimately set a Broncos rookie record with 14 touchdown passes in only five starts (Joe Namath threw 15 that year in 14 starts) and then wasn’t even allowed to compete for the starting job the next year. A quarterback since his Pop Warner days, Briscoe was forced to leave Denver and switch to wide receiver, a position he’d never played, because of the color of his skin. He became a star receiver for the Buffalo Bills and a two-time champion with the Miami Dolphins.

“Athletes were always supposed to be barefoot and pregnant in my time,” Briscoe said. “We weren’t supposed to express our views outside of going on the field and playing football. When I was coming up, you couldn’t have a black quarterback, center or middle linebacker — all the thinking positions. When you were in school and a teacher asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, a white kid would say, ‘I want to be president of the United States.’ You would never hear a black kid say that, including myself.

“Racism has softened over time, but it hasn’t been eradicated. And to have some of the same concerns and experiences for African-Americans in 2017 that we had in 1968 is amazing. For African-Americans who can’t throw or catch a football, or shoot baskets, or get their music out, there’s a helplessness that they feel as a people.”

A retired director of a Boys & Girls Club in Long Beach and a former financial broker, Briscoe said he has been sober 25 years after battling a drug addiction that left him, at times, homeless and in jail. He said his white offensive linemen in Denver, most from the South, all rallied around him and told each other, “Don’t let them touch The Magician.” As proud as he is of Watson, Cam Newton and other black quarterbacks who followed his lead, Briscoe is encouraged by the support offered to today’s protesters by their white teammates and co-workers. “It’s not just African-Americans speaking out; it’s society as a whole,” he said. “Back in the day we were alone in our protests and in our pain.”

Not this Sunday. This show of solidarity was a blowout victory for Kaepernick, absent in body but so present in spirit. Trump’s attack was countered by criticism from an unlikely group, NFL owners (“They’re friends of mine,” the president said), including one of the seven who contributed $ 1 million to his inauguration committee (and the only one to gift him a Super Bowl ring), New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. At a political rally Friday night in Hunstville, Alabama, Trump didn’t just call your average peaceful protestor a “son of a bitch” who deserved to be terminated; he claimed highly compensated NFL players had forfeited the right to “disrespect” the flag.

People don’t disrespect the flag when giving a public voice to the voiceless they believe have been oppressed. They are actually respecting what that flag is supposed to represent.

“Nonviolent protest is as American as it gets,” the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs said after Jacksonville’s 44-7 victory in London, where he took a knee for the anthem. “We knelt with them today and let them know we are a unified front. There is no dividing us.”

Put aside your personal feelings about what you witnessed Sunday, pro or con, and review this fundamental concept of American democracy: Freedom of expression is a constitutional right. Many men and women have died protecting it.

Protesting players have not broken any league or team rules. They have done nothing to disrupt the games they’re paid handsomely to play, or to prevent teammates from standing and honoring the anthem as they see fit.

And frankly, they’ve really done this country a big favor. Millions of people who go about their daily lives rarely thinking about systemic imbalances were likely inspired by the NFL protests to at least think and talk about them. In the end, thought and dialogue can bridge even the most stubborn divides.

Not that everyone inside an NFL stadium Sunday was supportive of the cause. Some fans in Indianapolis and New England were among those heard booing players who didn’t stand for the anthem. Denver’s Derek Wolfe sent a statement to ESPN’s Josina Anderson saying, in part, he feels a protest during the anthem is “disrespectful to the ones who sacrificed their lives and it’s the wrong platform.” And that’s perfectly fine. Wolfe and the booing fans are only exercising their rights, too.

But the sights and sounds that will endure above all were those that projected unity between white and black, employer and employee. They started on social media, where Brady and Rodgers posted hashtagged messages of love and brotherhood and photos of Brady about to embrace a black teammate, and Rodgers kneeling with white and black Packers. They continued on the field, where fans could see the Lions’ 92-year-old owner, Martha Ford, locking arms with 62-year-old head coach Jim Caldwell.

This isn’t what the president wanted to see. A political group supporting Trump has started an ad campaign designed to persuade fans to stage a protest of their own. “Turn off the NFL,” was the headline in the first posted ad, next to the hashtag TakeAStandNotAKnee and a photo of Trump with his hand over his heart.

It’s too bad Trump never bothered to invite some protesting players to the White House for an open and honest discussion on the issues, assuming they would agree to meet him. It’s too bad Trump never spent 10 minutes listening to the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, who raises his fist during the anthem. You couldn’t have a more thoughtful representative of your company — and your country, for that matter — than Malcolm Jenkins.

But it’s too late for any of that. The president assailed the basic rights of unionized NFL workers, and he ended up unifying the very sport he’s trying to tear down. In the end, he made a big winner out of his least favorite athlete, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who didn’t need to be on the field to have his day in the sun.

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