NASHVILLE—As the Seahawks flew to Nashville Friday, players began getting word of a speech that President Donald Trump made that evening in Alabama.
In that speech, Trump turned his attention to NFL players who have used the national anthem as a way to protest racial injustice—a group that this season has included Seahawks Michael Bennett and Justin Britt—and suggested players who protest should be fired, referring to those players as "Sons of (expletive)."
Two days later, when the anthem played at Nissan Stadium prior to Sunday's game, both sidelines were empty, with the Seahawks and Titans both deciding to stay in their locker rooms. Shortly before that, Seattle players released this statement through the team:
As a team, we have decided we will not participate in the national anthem. We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms. We remain committed in continuing to work towards equality and justice for all.
The Players of the Seattle Seahawks
After players dealt with the initial shock of hearing those comments from the President, with some of them expressing their feelings on social media Friday and Saturday, the team held meetings Saturday to reach a decision on what to do during the anthem. Discussions also took place with Titans players, as well as players on other teams around the league, and eventually the Seahawks decided they wanted to be unified in whatever they did during the anthem.
"As a team we wanted to do our best to not ostracize our guys, allow them to feel welcomed and not make them uncomfortable," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "That's the worst thing you could do as a teammate is put your teammate in an uncomfortable position.
"Anything we did, we had to be unified when we did it. So if we went out there and couldn't get everyone to kneel or everyone to sit or everyone to lock arms, then there was no point of doing it. It's not as powerful."
Added quarterback Russell Wilson: "We wanted to do something as a team. We're such a tight-knit group… We wanted to figure out, how can we do something as a whole team collective effort to show that the injustice in America needs to be fixed?"
Seahawks players know their decision won't go over well with everyone, but at the end of the day, they're hoping people can understand why they feel their actions are so important.
"I'm calling on people in our country to realize this is greater than just football, this is greater than just your Sunday evening entertainment," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "It's bigger than that.
"I want to make sure you all understand that I'm not speaking for everybody in our locker room. I'm speaking from heart personally. These are my thoughts: it's scary that we have a man in office who was elected to protect our basic rights, and yet he has shown recently the opposite… For us as players, directly being called out about not being able to express ourselves—and many men and women have sacrificed their lives for us to be able to express ourselves in that way, that's the foundational core of who we are as a country—and for that to be threatened by the man who is at the head of the table for our country, it's a very serious thing. I hope that that message is loud and clear for anybody who is listening, that they recognize that this is a dangerous time, and we recognize that.
"We're hoping to unite people of all colors, all races, all religions, all beliefs to come together and realize the severity of the situation. This is our country, what we were founded on was a protest—the Boston Tea Party, that was a protest. I think there's something to be said to make sure that we protect the sanctity and the importance of individuals in this country being able to express themselves. And I understand it's a difficult topic to talk about, I understand that we all have our different opinions, we all have our different viewpoints, but that's what makes our country so great. That's what makes our country unique and beautiful, that's why we are where we are, because we don't always agree. Just getting 63 guys to all agree to do something, that's difficult within itself, so I can understand how difficult it is for the country. But sometimes I feel like there's a line that needs to be drawn, and to me the most important thing we can do at this moment is be unified, and not just as a football team, or as the NFL or as a city, as a red state, blue state, but as a country, as a society. Because again, the severity of this situation cannot be understated."
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who issued his own statement Saturday supporting his players, said Sunday's decision was a player-driven one, and said, "That was the statement that they felt they needed to make. It wasn't a demonstrative thing on the field, it was a classy way to demonstrate your dissent. We did that together and it was a statement that all of the players wanted to make."
Sherman noted that some of the protests, which started with Colin Kaepernick last year, have been "kind of drowned out by the noise" because some people have been too caught up in the method of protest—the anthem—and not the injustice being protested.
"There is inequality out there, there isn't liberty and justice for all, and guys for a while, at least a year now, have been protesting that by taking a knee, sitting down, putting up a fist, etcetera, etcetera, but their voices were kind of drowned out by the noise, because people were saying, 'Oh, you're kneeling during the anthem,'" Sherman said.
"Guys want to do right by their people, they want to take a stand," Sherman continued. "They understand that things happening in this world aren't right, and if we have a platform to make a difference and to make a change and to help millions of lives be better, or at least bring awareness to the situation, then we will."
Players know change won't be instant or easy, but as athletes who have a platform, they feel now is an important time to speak out against racial injustice.
"We hate the injustice that's going on, and the only way to fix it is to try to make movements and try to make improvements," Wilson said. "And we can't fix it all in a day. The racial tension that has been going on has been for hundreds of years, and it's really showing up right now, and we can't ignore it. Ignoring it doesn't do anything. I know our football team believes in unity and believes in making a difference in our communities and in the world."
For Bennett, who though unnamed was one of the targets of Trump's words, having his teammates and organization's support was significant.
"It meant everything," Bennett said. "It was us coming together beyond football and just recognizing as human beings that it's something bigger than us. There's somebody who wins and somebody who loses in football, but at the end of the day, it's about coming together and collaborating and figuring out how to unite people together. I think as a team we did that today, we showed that we have compassion for each other and we showed what we stand for—we stand for equality. It was pretty exciting to be exciting to be a part of something that was revolutionary as far as the whole NFL, people coming together as one. It didn't matter our race, it didn't matter ourpolitics, it didn't matter our religion, we came together and we united, we showed that we have power as people. That's what we were doing today, and I think that was super impressive."
As for the President essentially referring to his mother with a derogatory term, Bennett said, "I was appalled. I think my mom is a beautiful lady. My mom sacrificed for me as a kid, she did a lot for me to be in this position, and I think she raised a great man, not only me, I think she raised a great man in my brother. In this world it's pretty hard to raise young black men, especially when you're not seen as being as important as another person in the United States. I think my mom did a great job. She's a school teacher, she has dedicated over 22 years of her life to school administration, and she works every day with special (education) kids in Houston. That's what you want as a person, and I think my mom is very good person. I couldn't believe that he called my mom that, because he doesn't know her."
And while the Seahawks lost to the Titans Sunday, Bennett believes his team will come out of the weekend stronger because of what happened between Friday night and Sunday's kickoff.
"I think we grew as a team," Bennett said. "We exercised our first-amendment right to be able to protest and have freedom of speech. It brought us together. We might have lost this game, but this is just one battle. We've got a long season ahead of us, and we've got a lot of people who have played a lot of football, and I think this is going to bring us together and unite us in a way that's going to take us beyond our football years and keep us connected even when we're done playing football."
The Seahawks fall short 33-27 against the Titans in Week 3 at Nissan Stadium.