In Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday, fans were booing and yelling, “Stand up!” as more than a dozen New England Patriots players knelt during the national anthem while others, including quarterback Tom Brady, stood with his arms locked in solidarity with teammates.
Three hours later, after Brady threw a last-minute, game-winning touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks -- one of the players who had taken a knee -- the fans again were at full throat, this time yelling, “Brady! Brady!” in mad celebration.
The Patriots comeback against the Houston Texans was one of four early Sunday games that came down to the final seconds. Another, Steelers-Bears, went to overtime while Eagles-Giants was decided on a 61-yard field goal from Eagles rookie Jake Elliott snuck over the cross bar with no time left on the clock.
A little after 1 p.m. on Sunday, Scott Hanson, who narrates the NFL Network’s “RedZone” program that provides live looks at every game’s scoring opportunities, was out of breath from the flurry of finales.
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“One of the most dramatic finishes of the early window of games we’ve ever seen on NFL RedZone!” Hanson gushed.
All of which is to say, the NFL product seemed just fine on the same weekend that President Donald Trump criticized it for being too soft, recommended that fans walk out of stadiums if players protested during anthems and mused about owners firing protesting players on the spot.
“Get that son of a b---- off the field right now! Out! He’s fired!” Trump said in a Friday rally in Huntsville, Ala.
Those comments ended up sending NFL anthem protests to heights never seen in 2016 when they were sparked by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who said he wanted to call attention to racial injustice in this country. Not only did more players than ever kneel or sit during the anthem, three teams opted to remain in their locker room during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
We’ll probably have to wait until next week and beyond to see if Trump’s urging has an effect on viewership and attendance. A political action committee that supports Trump called America First Policies on Sunday began running ads online encouraging fans to turn off NFL games. The ads feature a picture of Trump, his left hand over his heart, with an American flag as the backdrop.
NFL owners, however, were not quaking under the pressure. Their response was nearly unanimous and boiled down to this: We’re not going to tell players they can’t quietly and peacefully exercise their right to protest.
That might have been expected from some owners. The 49ers’ Jed York, the Dolphins’ Stephen Ross and the Eagles’ Jeffrey Lurie are among the league’s most progressive. York and Ross led off the criticism on Saturday with York calling the President’s comments “callous and offensive.”
More prominent were the reactions of owners and players who were in league with Trump at this point last year.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who donated at least $1 million to Trump’s campaign, said he was “deeply disappointed” in Trump’s comments.
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” Kraft said in a statement. “I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”
In London, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan stood with arms locked with his players during the anthem. Khan donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration but said Sunday that the president’s scolding “really crosses the line.”
Even the league office and the NFL Players’ Association – groups constantly at each other’s throats – were united in issuing statements decrying Trump’s comments.
The NFL certainly has its issues, ratings were down last year and we’ll have to wait to see what kind of hit the league receives as a result of its dramatic weekend stand.
But it remains the nation’s most popular sport. The president’s approval ratings, meanwhile, are at 39 percent, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll.
The NFL made its choice: It will not bend a knee to Donald Trump.