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Eagles fans support players’ right to protest during anthem

As teammates lock arms and raise fists, many fans see it as a free speech issue

PHILADELPHIA — The crucible of sports, we’ve been told, reveals character. That adage applies to fans as well as players in these trying times, as black athletes continue to turn a mirror on America and ask us to take a hard look.

On a 91-degree Sunday at the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium, with President Donald Trump demanding that protesting players be fired, the issue of national anthem protests reached the red zone.

When the anthem played, team owner Jeffrey Lurie locked arms with players, police and military members as safety Malcolm Jenkins and receivers Torrey Smith and Marcus Johnson raised their fists. Defensive end Chris Long and several other players stood near the protesting players in support. Most of the crowd responded respectfully, and few boos could be heard.

Watching from the stands in his No. 84 Eagles jersey, Travis Knapp said the scene felt patriotic.

“I’m a proud American, and free speech is a First Amendment right,” said Knapp, who works in sales. “If you don’t feel like something is right, say something.”

Of the protesting players, Knapp said, “Just wear their shoes. Wear their lives. Try to imagine what they go through. … So many people have been discriminated against in the world, discriminated against right now, and people don’t understand. Some people just don’t live through it.”

Lurie said in a statement: “The best of us lend our compassion and determination to the aid of others. Every day I see the genuine dedication and hard work of our players. And I support them as they take their courage, character and commitment into our communities to make them better and call attention to injustice.”

Many still vehemently oppose the protests and their minds were not changed by the sight of more players taking an action they believe disrespects their country and values.

“I think it’s ridiculous. I agree with Trump. I think they should all be fired,” Debbie Chang-Abel, who owns a towing and repair company with her husband in the Philadelphia suburbs, said in the parking lot before the game.

Aside from her respect for the anthem itself, she said African-Americans don’t face disparate treatment from police. Or barriers to education or employment. She said the issues that protesting players want to fix ain’t broke.

“All of that is being exaggerated by the media,” she said.

But in conversations with more than 30 people before the game, many white fans supported the players’ right to protest — even if they disagreed with their methods.

“If they want to bring something to light that they feel is a problem, I’m fine with that. That’s what our country is about. That’s what our service members fought for,” said Steve Varallo, a Philadelphia teacher, standing in front of a pickup truck flying the American flag from a towering pole.

Varallo said he has family members who are police officers and who served in the armed services.

“That’s what they fought for: for the rights of Americans to protest, and to have a say in what goes on in this country,” he said.

Around the NFL on Sunday, at least 167 players protested in some way, not counting three entire teams that stayed in their locker rooms during the anthem. Outside the stadium, as fans heard about the snowballing protests, they reacted as if their team had spiked the ball in the end zone.

“We love America,” said Wayne Powell, a teacher. “But sometimes, even when you love somebody, you have to sit down and have a conversation: ‘Baby, you ain’t cooking them greens like you used to. We need to have a talk.’ ”

Speaking at his locker after Philadelphia’s 61-yard field goal secured a win over the Giants as time expired, Jenkins, wearing a vibrant dashiki, called Sunday “a rallying point for guys to get involved.”

“It’s one of those things where we’ll be able to organize players a little bit more,” said Jenkins, who has raised a fist during the anthem since last season. “There’s so many guys that want to figure out a way to use their platforms to be a part of something big … this week brought all of those people to the table.”

A few lockers down, Long, who has supported Jenkins’ protest by standing next to him with a hand on his shoulder, said, “We’re not really protesting about that dude in D.C. But at the same time, he thinks he can control the NFL.

“He can’t fire anybody,” Long said. “And that’s the funny thing about it. He just doesn’t have control over us.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.