Some of them knelt, heads bowed, on this Sunday fraught with meaning. Some of them stood, arms linked with their teammates. At least one raised his fist as the last echoes of the National Anthem faded.
So much symbolism, on 9/11. So much to be said in so few words.
It is not just Colin Kaepernick saying it now, after all,and there are far more eloquent words to go with the far more nuanced wordless gestures. And if it's hard to say if more people are listening to the message now, they are at least not shouting so loudly over it.
So maybe what Kaepernick first did a month ago -- fail to stand for the National Anthem -- has at least partly served its intended purpose, which is open a dialogue about the inequality of justice in America.
The argument from the start was that Kaepernick's chosen form of protest was a bad one, because, if it achieved the necessary goal of all protest -- to provoke a reaction -- it was so inflammatory that the reaction overwhelmed the message. But the message seems to be getting out there regardless.
That's because more voices than Kaepernick's are being raised now, and it's become abundantly clear that there is more going on in NFL locker rooms than poring over game plans. People, and more than a few, have been thinking seriously and soberly about these issues, and they've been doing a lot of it. And it is not because they hate America or consider themselves oppressed or have a beef with "the troops," around whom simple gratitude has morphed into an almost cultish mania.
Hard to say when it happened -- maybe 9/11 was the trigger -- but at some point honoring America became almost exclusively about honoring "the troops," which it really isn't at all. And so the players who are kneeling or linking arms are compelled to explain patiently that no disrespect to the troops is intended. Or, on 9/11, that there was no intent to dishonor the memory and the sacrifice of that transformative day.
Which gets us back to symbolism.
No day on the calendar in America is more freighted with symbolism than 9/11, nor more instructive of its impact or its ambiguity. The players kneeling during the anthem, for instance, were adopting the same pose for which Tim Tebow became famous. That's because it's an attitude of reverence and contemplation -- as it also was for the players who knelt yesterday. Only the context was different, which is why Tebow was hailed and the players are not.
Tebow, after all, was embodying a concept (religious conviction) with which America is comfortable. The players are attempting to shed light on America's inequities, a concept with which America largely is not.
But there is a note of respect in kneeling or standing with arms linked that isn't there in merely sitting. One can, in fact, reasonably ask if it's any less respectful than merely standing. And so if the message accompanying it is a thoughtful one, as it largely has been, maybe the dialogue sought is a dialogue begun.
"It's our job as professional athletes to make a positive impact on our communities and to be proactive when change is needed," read a statement released Sunday by the Chiefs on behalf of the players, who stood with arms linked during the anthem. "Together we are going to continue to have conversations, educate ourselves and others on social issues and work with local law enforcement officials and leaders to make an impact on the Kansas City community."
That, friends and neighbors, is how you make a constructive difference. And if a symbolic gesture helps get that started ...
Well. Kneel on. There is, after all, nothing more American.