Lions president Ron Wood on players protesting during the national anthem. Daniel Mears / The Detroit News
Detroit — After she already had made a written statement about President Donald Trump’s denouncing of athletes making political stances, Detroit Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford made a symbolic statement just before Sunday’s game at Ford Field began.
Ford stood in line, arms linked, with Lions players and coaches and her three daughters – Martha Ford Morse, Sheila Ford Hamp and Elizabeth Ford Kontulis – during the singing of the national anthem. The emphatic display of support was just one of several around the nation at NFL games, following Trump’s statements this weekend. Trump criticized players who kneel or sit during the national anthem.
“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” Trump wrote on Twitter Sunday morning.
The Lions players made their own statement, with eight players opting to kneel during the anthem: Ameer Abdullah, Tahir Whitehead, Cornelius Washington, A’Shawn Robinson, Akeem Spence, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Steve Longa.
Both the Lions and Falcons players stood in single file and linked arms on their respective sidelines. Lions tight end Eric Ebron stood alone behind the primary line of players and coaches. Two Falcons players, Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett, also were kneeling on their side of the field.
As anthem singer Rico LaVelle finished the last words of the anthem, he also knelt and raised his right fist. During the anthem, a small segment of fans at Ford Field booed, presumably showing their disapproval for the silent protest.
“Our game has long provided a powerful platform for dialogue and positive change in many communities throughout our nation,” Ford wrote in a statement. “Thanks primarily to our players, the NFL also has been a unifying force in our country and impactful change has and hopefully will continue to be the result of peaceful expression, done so in order to highlight social injustices of all kind.
“Negative and disrespectful comments suggesting otherwise are contrary to the founding principles of our country, and we do not support those comments or opinions.”
Lions safety Glover Quin said Trump’s comments were divisive and not only cast NFL players in an unfavorable light, but also pointed to the example that it sets for Quin’s sons.
“We all know that was uncalled for; we all know there’s no place for that,” Quin said. “It’s awful for a president to say something like that. The president is a person when a kid looks like them, they should want to aspire to be the president.
“I can’t say I want my kids looking at that type of behavior and wanting them to be like that. There’s no place for that and we just wanted to show a sign of solidarity that we can’t just sit back and do nothing.”
While the protests, which began with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last season, have been much smaller and drew less attention early this season, Trump’s comments on Friday night at a political rally in Alabama inflamed the issue over the last couple of days.
Lions president Rod Wood, who spoke a couple hours before Sunday’s kickoff, didn’t know of any specific plans the players had to show their solidarity, but said the organization would support its players.
“I don’t know anything that’s going to happen,” Wood said. “I have not heard anything. I talked to Coach (Jim Caldwell) last night. I talked to Coach this morning. I think the players know we support them. We’ll see what they decide to do, but I’m not worried about it.”
Wood emphasized there would be no ramifications if any Lions players decided to protest.
Having Ford on the field during the anthem gave the players a boost, knowing they had her support, as well. What meant more was that their support came quickly, without a few days to marinate about the ramifications or how fans might react.
“For Mrs. Ford and all the owners across the league to recognize that and quickly speak up — there’s a difference between quickly speaking up and waiting a couple days — that’s good,” Quin said.
Lions players met to decide what course of action to pursue to show their stance on Trump’s comments. While some decided to stand with arms linked, the eight who chose to kneel had their own motivations.
What Longa cautioned against was losing the intent of the original message in Kaepernick’s protest: social injustice and police brutality.
“It’s whatever people wanted to hear. There were some people who believed that we were disrespecting veterans — when that was not the case,” Longa said. “When they’re fighting, they’re fighting for our freedom. That’s all we’re doing; we try to use our freedoms to express ourselves.”
After Sunday’s game, Caldwell was asked about the Lions’ protest and said he stood behind the statement issued by Ford.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement Saturday, also denouncing Trump’s message.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture," Goodell said in the statement. "There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we've experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities."