CARSON, Calif. — They stood in a single line, side by side, their arms locked for unity in a dramatic demonstration during the national anthem.
These were the Los Angeles Chargers and until Sunday — with no Michael Bennetts or Colin Kaepernicks in their midst — they barely registered a blip on the NFL Protest Meter.
But things have changed, thanks to the incendiary bashing from an intolerant Donald Trump — who called protesting players “sons of b——” and urged NFL owners to fire those who demonstrate during the anthem — at a campaign rally in Alabama on Friday night.
And now the low-key Chargers are like virtually every other team in the NFL, pressed to take a stand — or a knee, in some cases — as a statement for society.
Talk about reigniting a movement.
“There’s no doubt that President Trump has definitely changed the dynamic,” Dean Spanos, the Chargers’ chairman of the board, told USA TODAY Sports during a pregame interview. “How it all shakes out, I really don’t know. We’ll all wait and see.”
This much for sure: Thanks to Trump, the NFL served up some history on Sunday, with the unpredictable games presented with a nod to the movement occurring with demonstrations all across the league — beginning with prayers and mass kneel-downs before the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars played in London — as the ultimate in-your-face gesture to Trump.
“It’s a pivotal time in our society,” Chargers tackle Russell Okung told USA TODAY Sports in a near-empty locker room at StubHub Center, after the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Bolts 24-10. “It’s the first time that our generation has been faced with this political pressure, especially in sports.”
The old “stick to sports” suggestion no longer applies. The rhetoric from Trump fueled discussions within the teams and dominated the NFL pregame television shows Sunday. Afterward, when most players spoke publicly for the first time since Trump’s speech, the topic buzzed — as you’d expect.
Consider the response from Alex Smith, when asked about Trump’s criticism.
“I find that very alarming,” said the Chiefs quarterback. “This is the same guy who couldn’t condemn violent neo-Nazis, but he’s condemning guys that are taking a knee during the national anthem.”
Okung, meanwhile, believes Trump’s comments were intended as a distraction.
“What’s happening with Russia?” Okung asked. “He’s using Southern Strategy. He was in Alabama, right? That is Reagan at its finest. This has happened before. It’s a distraction in a way that he is shifting attention away from issues he really needs to be focused on.”
That Spanos joined his team on the sideline for the anthem, locking arms with players, illustrated another type of statement as owners and executives for several teams supported players in the protests that began last year, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Kaepernick tried to raise awareness of racial inequalities in the nation and the slayings of unarmed African-Americans by police.
That’s huge. And unprecedented optics in a league with its fair share of acrimony between management and players flowing from labor issues.
But Trump essentially “punked” the owners — several of whom combined to donate millions of dollars to his campaign and inauguration festivities — right along with the players when he urged supporters to stop attending games and mocked NFL efforts to make football safer.
It’s no wonder that while players tweeted reactions on Saturday, team owners across the league defended players and their game with a blitz of statements.
“It’s hard not to be emotional,” Spanos said. “I respect every one of our players, and it’s important that they know I have their back side. I want to be there for them. Everybody has the right of expression. That’s why this country’s so great. I may not agree with what some want to do and some may not agree with things I want to do, but I want to stand united with our team.”
While the Chargers opted for a unified team demonstration, following internal discussions Saturday night, the Chiefs rolled with demonstrations of their own. They demonstrated individually — and at least 15 conducted some form of a gesture. Before Sunday, cornerback Marcus Peters was the only Kansas City player to protest this season (as he did last season), with a fist raised as he sat on the bench during the anthem.
“I got tired of seeing him standing there by himself, while doing it for a good cause,” Chiefs running back Charcandrick West told USA TODAY Sports. “So I figured I’m going to stand behind my brother. I’ve been wanting to do that for weeks.”
As Peters sat on the bench Sunday, other Chiefs (including West) either went to a knee, raised a fist or took a seat. Others stood traditionally, at full attention with their hands over their hearts. Pro Bowl linebacker Justin Houston bowed his head in prayer.
“People complain about kneeling, people complain about standing,” Houston said. “We’re not changing anything. I feel like prayer changes everything. So I was praying that we come together as one, instead of being separate. You’ve got guys kneeling. What are we kneeling for? Praying is power.”
During the first two weeks of the season, the anthem protests that became a theme last season had largely faded, like a fad, with probably no more than a dozen players league-wide engaging in demonstrations. Yet suddenly, protests are a much more widely accepted part of the NFL fabric — even while the quarterback who ignited the anthem protests more than a year ago, Kaepernick, is still unemployed as apparent punishment for being such a lightning rod.
“This is not about disrespecting the flag,” Spanos said.
Indeed. After Kaepernick began his protests, he was widely ridiculed for the perception that his gesture was a slight at the U.S. military and the American flag that it defends. As much as Kaepernick tried to explain his purpose, his message was lost with so many who misinterpreted his actions.
Maybe now there will be more clarity.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell
PHOTOS: NFL protests