NASHVILLE — On Saturday, as the Seahawks returned to the team hotel following a morning walkthrough, the players were discussing what to do in the wake of President Donald Trump’s latest comments and tweets about the NFL and players protesting inequality and police brutality. The usual suspects were making their voices heard: Richard Sherman said his piece, and Michael Bennett, too.
Then a powerful voice, which had been reliably centrist until the weekend, emerged as a proponent of a more forceful protest. Quarterback Russell Wilson believed that locking arms and standing for the anthem, as the team had done last season, was not enough.
“It was a surprise, I think even for him,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman of said of Wilson’s new voice.
“He’s actually one of the main people who wanted to do something,” said Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett.
Last preseason, in response to 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem, Wilson explained that while he respected Kaepernick’s cause, he loved the flag and that the anthem was an emotional time for him because he was grateful to be able to play football. But Trump’s comments, describing protesting NFL players as “sons of bitches” who ought to be fired (among other things), went viral, which caused Wilson to speak up in a way he hadn’t before.
“It was sad to see that,” Wilson said of Trump’s comments. “There are so many guys across the league who want to do good things and do do good things ... without aggression and peacefully. It was sad to see that. You think about people who have gone through stuff, from Michael Bennett to people across the country. It’s a serious issue and it can’t be taken lightly, and I feel like honestly it’s being taken lightly. I think we have to be able to show love to make a difference in the world. I think it starts at the top and it starts in our communities to.”
Wilson’s vocal involvement is a significant development in a league where quarterbacks—the most visible players on any team—have stayed mum on the debate initiated by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, when he began kneeling in protest during the anthem last preseason.
“He had an epiphany of sorts when he saw the Trump comments,” says Sherman. “Something changed in his mind. He was ready to kneel, sit, whatever needed to be done. He was ready to go there for his teammates and for the greater good, and you’re not seeing that out of the premier quarterbacks in this league.”
Across the NFL, players stood, knelt, sat and abstained from the anthem. LeSean McCoy in Buffalo went through a stretching routine while it played. A handful of white players, including Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, knelt. Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, veteran of the War in Afghanistan, stood at attention on the field just outside of the tunnel, while his team remained in the locker room—a gesture, coach Mike Tomlin said, meant to free players from the burden of choosing to sit or stand.
The Seahawks also stayed in the locker room, though the team’s reasoning was different.
Despite Wilson’s apparent change of heart, Seattle's locker room was far from united on the issue. They debated for more than an hour on Saturday morning after the walkthrough, and then again with coaches participating at the end of an extended team meeting Saturday night.
“We wanted to do something as a team. Last year we did something, we locked arms,” Wilson told reporters after the game. “Then we wanted to figure out, how can we do something as a whole team to show that the injustice in America needs to be fixed.”
“It was very difficult to come to a decision,” Bennett said, “But I can’t even get my kids to decide what to eat for dinner.”
Sherman said the discussion pitted some of the team’s strongest personalities against one another.
“It’s a lot of very intelligent individuals, and they all have opinions about what should and shouldn’t be done,” Sherman said, “and not only that, but you have white people who don’t really understand the issues.
“And that’s not them being naive, its just something they’ve never had to deal with in their lives, so that’s not something they’ve ever had to concern themselves with. So you have to try to inform them and get them to understand why we’re doing it and why we need them to come along.”
Sherman said players were ultimately seeking a unified response, and some dissenters from the majority opinion conceded that abstaining from the anthem altogether would shield them from answering questions about why they stood while others knelt or sat. A quorum of leaders including Wilson, Sherman, Bennett, K.J. Wright, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas agreed the best response was to skip the anthem and remain in the locker room. They told the team of their decision 30 minutes before gametime.
On Sunday evening, following a 33–27 loss, numerous Seahawks outside of that leadership group declined to comment on the anthem protest on their way to team buses.
“They’re just like ‘man, I don’t really agree. Just get me somewhere where I don’t have to explain myself,’” Sherman says of the Saturday night deliberations. “So this is us getting them somewhere where they don’t have to explain themselves. They could say, ‘the rest of them did it and I didn’t really have a choice.’”
Sherman’s candid remarks on the racial dynamic in Seattle’s locker room underscored a debate happening among teams across a league where more than two thirds of players are black. The vast majority of white NFL players have chosen to stand at attention for the anthem with the exception of a handful of players including Chris Long who offered support in the form of a hand on the shoulder of kneeling teammates.
The Seahawks find themselves at two major crossroads in the first month of the season. On the field, Wilson has spent the majority of this 1–2 start running for his life. An offensive line, which has become a punchline across the league, surrendered immediate pressure at every turn Sunday, most notably during a second have sequence when a four-man rush on third down produced an intentional grounding penalty. Seattle’s effort to block a three-man rush on fourth and 22 might as well have been performed by the Keystone Cops.
Off the field, there’s no gameplan for continued protests, save for the guarantee that protests will continue in some form. Seahawks players who had previously protested individually were quick to remind that Sunday’s display wasn't entirely about Trump.
“We were not just protesting Trump,” Wright said. “We were protesting the message. It’s a message that’s been around for a long time. That we can’t do certain things and express ourselves in a certain way, that we aren’t full citizens.”
Said Bennett: “This is beyond a black-white thing. This comes down to what are we going to do as a country, as a world to start taking care of people for just being people.”