Steve Emtman will always love the game of football. It made him rich and famous.
But the former University of Washington star said Monday that he won’t watch another National Football League game “until they get the politics out of football.”
Emtman may have to wait a long time.
Politics has cleaved a canyon into the landscape of America’s game, as more than 200 NFL players protested society’s treatment of African Americans during the national anthem.
A movement begun a year ago by former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has exploded, after President Donald Trump urged NFL owners to fire players who disrespect the flag.
On Sunday those players defied Trump by holding hands, locking arms and dropping their heads during the playing of the national anthem.
And on “Monday Night Football,” the Dallas Cowboys – America’s Team – were led by owner Jerry Jones as they locked arms and dropped to a knee.
The tremors were felt across the country, including the Northwest, where the reactions are as emotional as the game itself. Every player and coach, past and present, sought the moral high ground until the argument seemed distilled into one irreconcilable difference: What is more precious, honoring the flag or the freedoms it symbolizes?
For Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, the protests mean “taking it upon yourself and represent people who are the same skin tone as you, the people that you know are suffering on the streets.”
Former NFL player Clint Didier, a former Washington Redskins tight end from Connell, disagreed and said the real suffering was endured by American veterans who fought for the United States.
Didier hosts a talk show in the Tri-Cities and said he recently befriended a two-time Iraq War veteran. “He’s seen the ugliness of war, and he doesn’t understand this,” Didier said. “Veterans have given everybody the freedom and liberty to pursue their dreams.”
“Everybody has their right to protest, but I am sickened by the fact that these players won’t stand for the national anthem and the flag, which is a pinnacle for the world,” Didier said.
Paul Wulff, a former Washington State and Eastern Washington head coach who also worked in the NFL, agreed. “I wish that people would put politics aside and honor a country that’s bigger than any individual out there,” Wulff said.
Both sides take to Twitter
Until last weekend, taking a knee meant the end of a football game. It meant closure until the next game.
There was none on Monday, as the line of scrimmage moved to social media.
At daybreak, Trump reiterated that his criticism of the anthem protest “has nothing to do with race.”
“It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” Trump tweeted.
Many players, some with Inland Northwest ties, responded in kind.
“Peaceful dissent is a cornerstone of American liberties. Those brave enough to begin civil discussion are a part of why we have such liberty,” tweeted Steve Gleason, the former Washington State and New Orleans Saints star.
Another former Cougar and NFL player, Hamza Abdullah, was more graphic.
“Some forgot why (Kaepernick) took the knee…This is why,” tweeted Abdullah, who linked his message to a video of a police officer shooting African-American driver Philando Castile seven times during a traffic stop in Minnesota.
For Bishop Sankey, who starred at Gonzaga Prep, the University of Washington and now plays running back for the Minnesota Vikings, the galvanizing moment came last Friday during a Trump rally in Alabama.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,’ ” Trump said.
The crowd roared.
Sankey responded the next day: “Might as well call the creators of the Constitution SOBs too.”
For different reasons, Trump and Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett downplayed the issue of race on Monday.
Last month, Bennett accused Las Vegas police officers of assaulting him after the Mayweather-McGregor boxing match.
Yet on Monday, Bennett said, “This is beyond a black-white thing. This comes down to what are we going to do as a country, as a world to start taking care of people for just being people.”
Leach, WSU players take sides
College players don’t take the field until after the anthem is played, but they couldn’t avoid the controversy.
During his weekly press conference Monday afternoon, Washington State coach Mike Leach – a Trump supporter – sided with the president.
“To me, it’s not very clear what’s even being protested,” Leach said. “I’ve never heard a real clear articulation of what’s being protested or what’s objected to, so I don’t know exactly the issue.”
“But me personally, I’m proud of this country and I would stand for the national anthem and respect the flag,” Leach said.
Cougar senior lineman Cole Madison was more emphatic.
“I’ve got the flag on my shoulder right now. … People have their voice and their opinions, but I’d never do anything like that. I just love the country too much, so that’s what I have to say about that,” Madison said.
Running back Jamal Morrow backed the protests.
“I definitely agree with their protests and everything they’re doing right there,” Morrow said. “They’re looking at it as a bigger-than-football kind of thing and protesting for the right things they believe in.”
S-R reporter Theo Lawson contributed to this story