The protests “sent a message of solidarity and cohesion, and made people understand that these guys are entertaining you, but they also have thoughts and ideologies and take a stand on issues,” said Charles K. Ross, the director of African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi and the author of two books on African-American professional football players. “You can’t simply hide in a hole and not have an opinion on these things.”
The moment that changed everything occurred in late September, when the president attacked the N.F.L. at a campaign rally on a Friday night in Alabama. He used a derogatory word to describe players who did not stand for the anthem and called on owners to fire them. His comments sparked a crisis at the N.F.L., which would be playing games less than 48 hours later.
The response from Robert K. Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, was of particular interest because he considers the president a friend. He donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural activities. His coach, Bill Belichick, wrote a letter of support to Trump days before the presidential election in 2016. “You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully — beautifully,” Belichick wrote. “You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing.”
At the same time, some Patriots players refused to visit the White House last spring to celebrate their Super Bowl victory because of their opposition to the president.
After Trump’s comments, Kraft said he was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s speech, and he supported the players’ efforts to “peacefully effect social change.” In Foxborough, Mass., Kraft remained out of sight while about a dozen Patriots knelt that first weekend after Trump’s comments. They were booed by their hometown fans. The next weekend, no Patriots protested.
Public opposition quickly died down in Minnesota as well. The Vikings’ owners, Zygi and Mark Wilf, waited two days before speaking out against Trump, then locked arms with their players during the national anthem. The Wilfs issued a statement that never mentioned Trump, and instead spoke of their commitment to “foster an environment that recognizes and appreciates diversity of thought and encourages using this platform in a constructive manner. Rather than make divisive statements, we believe in promoting thoughtful, inspiring conversation that unifies our communities.”
By the next weekend, the Vikings were among the dozen teams that had no players protesting.
But several members of the Jaguars continued to kneel, and Malcolm Jenkins of the Eagles played a leading role in the Players Coalition, a group of players who met regularly with owners and league officials to push the N.F.L. to help address their concerns. Over the opposition of some owners, the league eventually agreed to provide monetary support, a victory not just for Jenkins but for the other players who continued to protest throughout the fall.
Jenkins remained outspoken. He raised his fist during the national anthem through November, then announced he was ending his protests because he was encouraged by the N.F.L.’s pledge to donate $89 million to charities addressing issues raised by protesting players.
“That the athletes were able to take action and not have their jobs jeopardized was significant,” said Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “It opened the door that will never be closed again.”
The response from the Jaguars was also notable because Shahid Khan is the only nonwhite team owner; he immigrated from Pakistan in 1967 and is a Muslim. His Jaguars play in a city dominated by the military. Khan also donated $1 million to the president’s inauguration, but he opposed his ban on immigration from several Muslim majority countries.
The Jaguars were the first team to play on Sunday after Trump’s remarks because they were in London to face the Baltimore Ravens. Before the game, the team issued a statement, and then Khan met with several players; Coach Doug Marrone; and Tom Coughlin, the former coach who advises the team. Marrone suggested that all players lock arms, though it was unclear whether some players would kneel. A few did.
When Khan joined the players on the sideline and locked arms with two team captains, a pack of photographers ran across the field to capture the moment. The photos were quickly noticed by other teams, and by the end of the day, owners across the country stood, arms locked, with their players.
After Khan got to his owners’ box, he received an email from Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner. “That was very powerful,” it read. “Thanks for your leadership. RG.”