LONDON — Shad Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was chatting with a business associate in the back of a silver Mercedes van, on his way to Wembley Stadium to watch his Jaguars play when Jim Woodcock, his personal P.R. man, leaned over and briefed him on the situation developing at the field. Woodcock had just received a message from a Jags P.R. staffer: Calais Campbell is rounding up the team in 10 minutes. I think they’re planning something.
Khan nodded and said he’d meet the players when he arrived. He knew this was coming. The NFL had been ablaze for the last two days, ever since President Donald Trump made comments about the players protesting during the national anthem, labeling them SOBs and calling for owners to fire them for disrespecting the flag. Everyone expected the players to respond to Trump in some way, and since the Jaguars were playing in London and kicking off around 9:30 EST, they would have the first chance to act. Khan had been in contact with Jaguars EVP Tom Coughlin, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and other various Jaguars team leaders, trying to gauge the climate.
At the stadium, Campbell did round up everyone for a players-only meeting. “All the guys were talking about it, asking me,” said Campbell, a 10-year veteran who joined Jacksonville this year as a free agent after nine seasons with Arizona. “I just wanted to get everybody together to see how people felt.” They opened the floor and let everyone voice his opinion and found that some players wanted to stand, some wanted to kneel and some wanted to sit. Some felt passionately about the issue, on both sides, and some felt torn. They ultimately decided they wanted to do something as a team, something to show they supported each other and those who protested. “Whatever we did, we wanted to show that we were together with the guys that wanted to kneel,” said Telvin Smith, a fourth-year linebacker.
Khan arrived at Wembley about two hours before kickoff and went directly into the locker room, to coach Doug Marrone’s office for a meeting. In the room were the team’s five captains—Smith, Paul Posluszny, Marcedes Lewis, Brandon Linder and Arrelious Benn—and the team’s powers-that-be: Marrone, Coughlin, Dave Caldwell, Woodcock and Khan’s son Tony. “We just let them know this is what it is, this is how we feel,” said Lewis, and then the players told the room that they wanted everyone to line up during the anthem, side by side, with their arms interlocked, as a way to show unity. Khan was all in. “It was sigh of relief when the owner comes in and says: ‘We’re with you. Whatever you want to do, let’s do it,’ ” Smith said.
Moments before kickoff then, just after the coin toss, the players and coaches took their places along the sideline, and Khan walked between Smith and Lewis and hooked his arms around theirs. There in between two African-American players stood Khan, a Pakistani-born Muslim billionaire who became a U.S. citizen in 1991 and is the first non-white owner in NFL history. He had his left arm wrapped around Smith’s arm so tightly that his hand was clenched against his chest in a fist. After the U.S. anthem ended and after the rendition of “God Save the Queen,” Khan turned, pulled Smith in for a hug and whispered in his ear: I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.
Later, Goodell would write to him: “That was very powerful. Thanks for your leadership.”
After the Jaguars beat the Ravens 44-7, Khan wandered onto the field, a few feet from where he had stood during the anthem. “It’s unity, togetherness, and to respect diversity—that’s the most important thing,” he said, reflecting on the demonstration. “Whether you are on your knee or are standing up straight, it’s respecting diversity. Respect the diversity whatever color your skin is, or religion, or if you were born in the U.S., came as an immigrant, whatever. Respect it.” (The MMQB happened to have two reporters shadowing Khan on Sunday, gathering reporting for an upcoming story.)
The image of Khan standing there would become one of the more memorable moments from the young NFL season, and to think, it came together so quickly. Khan hadn’t been aware of Trump’s comments—he was busy with hosting events and having meetings—until around 6 p.m. Saturday, after he had finished watching Fulham, the London soccer team he also owns. By then Trump’s comments were dominating the news cycle and a reporters were noting that seven NFL owners had contributed $1 million to Trump’s campaign, including Khan.
At halftime of the game on Sunday, Khan explained why he had had a change of heart, politically. He pointed out that in February he had made strong comments in The New York Times in opposition of Trump’s travel ban against several Muslim-predominant countries. “I supported him in the campaign because I loved his economic policies and I thought, you know, politicians do a lot of stuff to get elected,” Khan said. “The way you govern in this country is by being in the middle. I fully expected him to move to the middle and really provide leadership on immigration, secure the borders. But I was appalled, right after his inauguration, how things started out, [with him] being more divisive and really being more polarizing on religion and immigration.”
With these recent Trump comments, Khan said, “It really crosses a line.”
Khan has proved to be one of the more vocal owners in supporting players who protest. He recently said publicly that he’d be OK signing Colin Kaepernick and he reiterated that point on Sunday, saying he’d “have no issue at all” doing it. While Khan stood in the interlocked line during the anthem, at least a dozen players, including Campbell, were kneeling. “I think the essence of America is the freedom to express yourself,” Khan said. “If someone does that by kneeling, God bless them. It’s not something that I would do. But that’s your choice. There shouldn’t be any way to punish, ostracize, or in any way make them feel bad.”
When Khan joined the players during the anthem protest on Sunday, they took notice. “It was incredible,” Campbell said at his locker. “For him to be there, it shows how much he cares about his players. It really meant a lot.” A few lockers over, Smith smiled wide when he was asked about Khan. “That’s a great man,” he said. “For him to stand there with us, come on the field, owners don’t do that. Owners don’t come around and meet with players like that.”
After the game, Khan headed back to his hotel with the same business associate he had come in with, the man’s wife, and Woodcock. The ride was mostly quiet as everyone checked their phones, catching up on the news of the day. At one point, the associate announced to the car that Martha Firestone Ford, the owner of the Detroit Lions, had linked arms next to the players and coaches during their anthem demonstration. “Oh great!” Khan said. “That’s awesome.”
“You set the tone, Shad,” the associate replied.
Khan shrugged him off. “We all need to send a thank you card to President Trump,” he said. “He’s united us all in a very powerful way.”
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