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Shipley: In show of unity, Vikings stand together on anthem issue

Minnesota Vikings defensive back Harrison Smith (22) locks arms with general manager Rick Spielman (left) and owners Mark Wilf (middle) and Zygi Wilf (right) before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday, Sept. 24, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports1 / 2
Minnesota Vikings players lock arms during the national anthem before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 24, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS—When Colin Kaepernick first sat out the national anthem during a preseason game in August 2016, it went largely unnoticed. On Sunday, Sept. 24, the former NFL quarterback's act of protest became league-wide, even if not every player locking arms could fully express his motivation.

That's because by addressing the issue, flippantly and derisively, during a rally Friday, Sept. 22, in Huntsville, Ala., the president of the United States has changed the conversation. What was once Kaepernick's protest of social injustice has become about more, from inclusivity to free speech.

The Vikings who locked arms during the anthem prior to Sunday's 34-17 victory over Tampa Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium, have different ideas about how to act during "The Star-Spangled Banner," but in the wake of President Donald Trump's comments on the matter felt compelled to do something.

During the rally in Huntsville for senatorial candidate Luther Strange, Trump told a receptive crowd that NFL team owners should "fire" players who don't stand for the national anthem, all but challenging every player in the 32-team league to respond, if only to actively demonstrate the right to free speech protected in the U.S. Constitution.

When Trump followed with a series of tweets criticizing the NFL as a product, imploring people to boycott games, players felt attacked.

The Steelers, Seahawks and Titans simply didn't show up for the anthem on Sunday, while players for the Jaguars, Ravens and Patriots—among others—knelt during it. The Vikings were among teams that locked arms in solidarity while standing for the anthem. Solidarity in ... what exactly? It's complicated.

"There's a lot there," safety Harrison Smith said.

Amen, brother.

The common denominator is race, even if it's more about social justice for some than others. That's what started it for Kaepernick and attracted others such as Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas.

"I have a daughter," Thomas told reporters on Sunday. "She has to live in this world."

Whether he meant to or not, the president has further divided his constituents because most of the NFL's protesters are African-American. Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans, who took a knee with his hand over his heart Sunday, said he did so in part because he felt President Trump was singling out blacks for criticism.

That resonated with black and white players, regardless of their politics. The NFL has a lot of problems, but racism among coaches and players is not one of them. Smith, for instance, struggled to put the Vikings' arm lock into context before finally cutting to the chase, for him anyway.

"We just want to stick together," he said. "There are a lot of different backgrounds on this team, and we'll stay together."

Despite periodic spasms of hand-wringing over Kaepernick's inability to get a look from an NFL team, the issue of national anthem protests was fading, even as more players picked it up.

They were accepted, if not universally liked, by fans who generally prefer politics and sports stay separated on their plates. Now it's a bigger issue than ever because it's been sucked into the orbit of the president's polarizing style of leadership.

Some players seem shocked just to have the president's attention.

Asked, for instance, if he was surprised that the president of the United States has spent so much time criticizing the NFL, Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen said, "To be quite frank, absolutely."

All they know for sure is that the players coming under fire are their friends.

"If America was like what's going on in our locker room," Griffen said, "then they'll see what a united front is. That's what we do on a daily basis — love one another, no matter the situation."