ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The most impactful kneeling on Sunday occurred after the Buffalo Bills beat the Denver Broncos 26-16 at New Era Field.
It happened at the 50, right in the middle. Funny place to meet, huh?
Justin Simmons was at the center of the kneeling. He’s a second-year safety, a baby in NFL terms. Around him were 20 or 30 Broncos and Bills and players, huddled up like they want the same thing or something, even after 3 hours of smashing one another into the fake plastic turf. This kneeling, however, was productive, especially at this moment.
“We were praying for our country,” Simmons told me afterward.
At the combustible intersection of the NFL and politics on Sunday, I saw two shining examples of togetherness: in the postgame prayer and in the locker room. Everywhere else? Just a whole bunch of shouting fueled by ego.
Thirty-two Broncos took a knee during the national anthem on Sunday. They ranged from superstars like Von Miller to young pros learning their way in the league, like Simmons. A gang of others elected to stand for the national anthem. They ranged from Derek Wolfe, a Super Bowl champion, to Garett Bolles, a rookie who stood as he placed a hand on Miller's shoulder. They all have differences of opinion. They all work together just fine.
Perhaps the other kneeling — to protest the social injustices they perceive, police brutality that pales in comparison to crime numbers, and last, but definitely not least, President Trump’s unnecessary grandstanding — will make the United States a better place. But I haven’t seen it. Have you? That other kneeling — during the anthem, below the American flag — has accomplished nothing worth celebrating. All it’s done is further scatter Americans to the fox holes they chose before all the shouting started.
And it’s awfully tough to have a productive chat when facts are twisted to fit an agenda and folks are more interested in kicking dirt in the other guy's face.
“I come from poverty. For me, it’s not a black and white thing. It’s a rich and poor thing," Wolfe said. "The social injustices are toward the less fortunate. The people who don’t have money are the ones who are looked down upon, because they’re on government assistance. I was on government assistance my whole life until I got drafted. I was on food stamps. I had $7 when I got drafted."
Why does a locker room work in unison while the outside world raises its voice?
“You know why? Because we give each other a chance to speak. And we listen to each other when we speak,” Wolfe told me. “Most people, whenever somebody’s talking, they already have an idea of what they’re saying. They’re not listening to what’s being said to them. They’re thinking about what they want to take from it.”
In one corner of the Broncos locker room, massive defensive tackle Domata Peko pointed down a row of a lockers and said: “Look at the guys next to me right now. I’m from Samoa. Adam Gotsis is from Australia. Derek Wolfe — that guy right there — he’s from Youngstown. And it works. You know, man? It works.”
One day after President Trump proclaimed at a campaign rally that NFL players who kneel during the anthem should be “fired,” coach Vance Joseph addressed the team on Saturday. Joseph's message aligned with the organization’s as a whole: Do you, but don’t let it interfere with the job.
“It’s their right (to protest),” Joseph said after the Broncos lost their first road game of the season. “That wasn’t the reason we didn’t win the football game.”
Quarterback Trevor Siemian added: “So many of these guys are positive agents for change in the community. I’ve seen it everywhere. It’s an honor to be their teammate.”
Colin Kaepernick didn't help. By kneeling during the national anthem, a sacred moment to a lot of people, all he did was dig a deeper divide. If professional athletes who disagree with the president truly wanted their voice heard, they wouldn't hide from interviews and skip White House visits.
Trump isn't helping. By referring to kneeling players as “sons of b****,” all he’s done is dig a deeper divide. If the president truly wanted to find a solution to the problems they perceive, he wouldn't resort to childish name-calling. Both are hypocrites of the highest order. At least they're consistent in that respect. Kaepernick empathized with Fidel Castro, so he must be cool with suppressing free speech. Trump advocates NFL teams cutting players who voice their political beliefs, so he must be cool with a longer, heavier hand for government. They’re both grandstanding for the real-world equivalent of Twitter likes. They’re both phonies. They’re both what we shouldn’t be.
The most productive, effective display before an NFL game is a team that locks its arms together on the sideline. The point is made, the flag respected.
Would that be so hard?
On the surface, the NFL on Sunday looked like a divided entity. I saw the opposite. I saw a locker room united with black guys, white guys, all kinds of guys. I saw a postgame prayer united with black guys, white guys, all kinds of guys.
“We took that as a time to pray. Right now I thought that’s the best thing we can do,” Simmons said. “It wasn’t a jab at America and those who fight for our country. I have war vets in my family, man. Honestly, it wasn’t a jab at Donald Trump. We used it as a time to reflect on what’s important.”
I saw how America is supposed to work.