Before their 52-0 win over the Oakland Raiders at home last Sunday, several members of the St. Louis Rams entered the field during pre-game introductions at the Edward Jones Dome in the "hands up, don't shoot" pose popular among those protesting the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. It was a seemingly simple gesture in solidarity with a community that has been broken by the way things have been handled in the Ferguson area, and the players -- tight end Jared Cook and receivers Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens and Tavon Austin -- used the team's pre-game introductions to sympathize with the protestors outside the stadium.
"We kind of came collectively together and decided we wanted to do something," Cook said after the fact. "We haven't been able to go down to Ferguson to do anything because we have been busy. Secondly, it's kind of dangerous down there and none of us want to get caught up in anything. So we wanted to come out and show our respect to the protests and the people who have been doing a heck of a job around the world."
Those who were offended by the gestures of those players may either come down on the side of the notion that Officer Wilson had every reason and right to shoot Brown to death or believe that professional football players should stick to sports and leave politics to others. The players had to know that this would reverberate throughout the sports world, and that's probably why they did it in the first place.
"We wanted to show that we are organized for a great cause and something positive comes out of it," Britt said. "That's what we hope we can make happen. That's our community. We wanted to let the community know that we support the community."
Things started to get more complicated when Jeff Roorda, the Business Manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, released a scathing statement condemning the gesture and demanding an apology from the team. In the final paragraph of that statement, Roorda resorted to a covert level of intimidation that didn't do anyone at the St. Louis County Police Department any good at all.
"I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights," he said. "Well I've got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products. It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it's not the NFL and the Rams, then it'll be cops and their supporters."
The union and the police department have every right to pressure sponsors if they believe that the team is acting in a way that doesn't represent the best values of the community, but given the sensitive nature of this situation, it's hard to believe this couldn't have been handled better.
Those hoping that the NFL or the Rams would do something to punish the players were bound to be disappointed. Rightly, the league and the team decided that the players involved were exercising their right to protest, and that was that.
"We respect and understand the concerns of all individuals who have expressed views on this tragic situation," NFL vice president of communications Brian McCarthy said in a statement.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher had two definitive statements on the matter: It's the right of my players to do what they did, and keep me out of it.
"As far as the choice that the players made, no, they were exercising their right to free speech," Fisher said Monday. "I'm a head coach. I'm not a politician, an activist or an expert on societal matters. So I'm gonna answer questions about the game."
Rams CEO Kevin Demoff wanted to do more than that, and he reached out to the police department about the gesture in a way that has become the subject of some dispute. On Monday night, St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar sent this e-mail to his staff.
Members of the Department,
I received a very nice call this morning from Mr. Kevin Demoff of the St. Louis Rams who wanted to take the opportunity to apologize to our department on behalf of the Rams for the "Hands Up" gesture that some players took the field with yesterday.
Mr. Demoff clearly regretted that any members of the Ram's organization would act in a way that minimized the outstanding work that police officers and departments carry out each and every day. My impression of the call was that it was heartfelt and I assured him that I would share it with my staff.
Thank you for your hard work, ... one night to go. Stay safe.
Perhaps there was a misinterpretation of the discussion, but it was one that Demoff felt that he had to clear up with his own statement.
"This morning, I had phone conversations with both Chief Dotson and Chief Belmar regarding yesterday's events," Demoff told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I expressed to both of them that I felt badly that our players' support of the community was taken as disrespectful to law enforcement. ...
"In none of these conversations did I apologize for our players' actions. I did say in each conversation that I regretted any offense their officers may have taken. We do believe it is possible to both support our players' First Amendment rights and support the efforts of local law enforcement as our community begins the process of healing.
"Chief Belmar's assertion that our conversation was heartfelt is accurate, and I would characterize our conversation as productive. Our organization wants to find ways to use football to bring our community together."
Demoff was in an uncomfortable position, to be sure. He knew that several of his team's players disagreed very publicly with the ways in which justice had been served, but he also had to act as the corporate face of a team that plays a big role in the community. With this balance in mind, those who believe that Demoff was trying to hit both sides of the matter with the goal of landing squarely in the middle may be right. But the response from the police's side was worrisome, to say the least. Instead of agreeing that the goal was helping the process of healing, the police department put this statement up on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, in an effort to parse Demoff's sentiments in a way that met its own standards.
Chief Belmar was contacted today by St. Louis Rams COO Kevin Demoff. The Chief never asked for anyone from the Rams to contact him. He said the conversation was pleasant. The Chief sent an email to his police staff and used the word “apologized.” Mr. Demoff is quoted in the St. Louis Post Dispatch story saying “I expressed to both of them that I felt badly that our players' support of the community was taken as disrespectful to law enforcement.” He further stated “I regretted any offense the officer’s may have taken.”
Even though Mr. Demoff stated he never apologized, the Chief believed it to be an apology and the Chief sent the email to police staff to let them know about the call, after he told Mr. Demoff he would share his sentiments with his staff.
And now, a simple gesture had devolved to a "he said/she said" level one would find tacky coming from a junior-high breakup. The PD wasn't done being immature on social media, calling Demoff out on Twitter.
What has happened in Ferguson is far more serious and important than this, but the lengths to which the police department has gone to protect its public perception in correspondence with an team executive has to be distressing to a lot of people in that city. Given everything that has happened, and all the recovery now to be done, one is left to wonder -- is the St. Louis County Police Department more interested in the appearance of community solidarity than the more complex realities in place?
At this point, the evidence leans in the wrong direction.