GREEN BAY - Chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" reverberated around Lambeau Field on Thursday as the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears stood to observe the national anthem. Players and coaches from both teams locked arms on their respective sidelines. No one sat and no one kneeled.
The decision by the Packers to lock arms was meant as a display of unity, a message made public through a statement crafted by the players earlier this week. They encouraged fans to do the same, and while the anthem proved to be uneventful, the majority of spectators did not link arms with their neighbors.
"Well, it was an invitation to join us," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "The beauty is, it's a free country so they can choose to do it or not.
"The messaging of this, unfortunately, continues to need to be redirected. It's never been about the national anthem, it's never been about the military. We're all patriotic in the locker room. We love our troops. This is about something bigger than that: an invitation to show unity in the face of some divisiveness from the top in this country, and I'm proud of our guys. This has been a galvanizing situation for us."
Asked if he was glad no one booed during the anthem, Rodgers said, “We could hear some 'USA' chants as it started – which is fantastic. We could also hear some negativity being yelled during the anthem. Semantics there, right? What’s disrespectful to the anthem, yelling things during it or standing at attention with arms locked facing the flag? (I’ll) let you decide.”
The peaceful demonstration came four days after the Packers put forth something of a disjointed message during the national anthem prior to kickoff with the Cincinnati Bengals. Where certain teams around the league took unanimous action — the Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones locked arms and took a symbolic knee; the Jacksonville Jaguars and owners Shahid Khan locked arms in London — there were differing approaches in Green Bay.
Up front, dozens of players locked arms along the sideline at Lambeau Field, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and wide receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson among them.
In back, three players remained seated for the duration of the anthem — rookie cornerback Kevin King and tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks — but even then the rationale was multi-pronged.
For Bennett, who is at the epicenter of the Packers’ movement, the decision to sit was made in the moment because of what he felt at the time. And while he declined to reflect on his reasoning during a group interview this week, Bennett has vocalized his feelings about racial inequality and police brutality in the past, most notably after an incident involving his brother, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, and the Las Vegas Police Department went public in early September.
For Kendricks, the Milwaukee native and former Wisconsin star, sitting through the anthem reflected his support of Bennett and his displeasure with the actions of President Donald Trump, who Kendricks feels has shown disinterest in addressing recent natural disasters.
King, the youngest protester, said he reacted instinctively after contemplating both his age and rookie standing in the league prior to kickoff.
“It was crazy,” King said after beating the Bengals, “because here I am, I’m going into my first game starting, and I’m following (wide receiver) A.J. Green. And, of course, I know that. Before the game, I’m thinking about if I should kneel, and that says something there. Of course I’m focused on the game and everything, but in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘What should I do in this situation?’ ”
In the echo chambers of social media, reactions ranged from sympathetic to sour, from indifferent to enraged. There were Packers fans who supported the movement and recognized perceived injustices cited by players.
Kathy Howell and Rabah Bellir, two Milwaukee residents in attendance Thursday, planned to link arms from their 300-level seats.
“What Rodgers wants us to do I'm going to do," Howell said. “I'm in support of peaceful protest.”
Teresa Beardsley, a Bears fan from Frankfort, Ind., said she would stand with her hand over her heart “because that’s who I am.”
But during the week there were others who likened Bennett, Kendricks and King to wealthy and unpatriotic brats, criticizing them for what some perceived to be inappropriate actions in the workplace since football is their job. Kendricks said the team saw signs in the stands against the Bengals that told protesting players to leave the organization.
“I mean if you look at the message, no one’s ever said anything negative about veterans or the military or anything like that,” Bennett said earlier this week. “That’s never been what’s said. I think people are trying to avoid the conversation by changing the conversation. … People don’t want to talk about racism, they don’t want to talk about oppression... They want to be oblivious to it so they don’t want to deal with it, and then when it comes to sports people want to be even more distracted with what’s going on in the world. But this is a conversation you can’t avoid.”
But Thursday night came and went without disturbance. The fans may not have linked their arms, but the movement was peaceful nonetheless.
Whatever social media posters promised as punishment for players, a Packers touchdown on the first drive was met with raucous cheers around the bowl.
Richard Ryman of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin contributed.