GREEN BAY — There were chants of “USA! USA!” as the oversized American flag was unfurled. There was a contingent of active military members in camouflage uniforms on the field along with the traditional color guard.
What there didn’t turn out to be, however, was a stadium full of Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears fans locking their arms in the Lambeau Field stands like the Packers players and coaches did on the field during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the Packers’ 35-14 victory over the Bears Thursday night.
While Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his teammates felt they delivered their “moment of unification” as they’d stated in their open letter to fans on Tuesday, it did not appear most fans embraced their idea. At the same time, after all the heated debate over the past week over NFL players’ behavior during the national anthem, it seemed those who disagreed with the players’ approach were largely quiet.
But not entirely.
“Well … it was an invitation to join us. The beauty is it’s a free country so they can choose to do it or not,” Rodgers replied when told after the game that it didn’t look like most fans took part in the interlocking of arms.
Rodgers then doubled down on what he’d said during the week, again emphasizing the players’ reasoning for preaching unity.
During the national anthem before Sunday’s victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, many of the players locked arms on the sideline but a handful of players stood apart from the sideline chain while three players — tight end Martellus Bennett, tight end Lance Kendricks and cornerback Kevin King — sat on the bench.
President Donald Trump’s criticism last Saturday of NFL players who had chosen to protest during the anthem led to a groundswell of opposition throughout the league last weekend. Rodgers and Bennett, along with a host of other players, talked at length earlier in the week about how to approach the anthem before Thursday night’s game, feeling that it was important that the entire sideline do the same thing.
“The messaging of this unfortunately needs to continue to be redirected, I think. 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,” Rodgers continued. “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.
“In the locker room, and outside the locker room … there’s been some great conversations that have been started, and as much as some people want us to just shut up and play football, and keep the politics to the politics, sports and politics have always intersected. And, if we can help continue a conversation through demonstration of unity like tonight, I think that’s a good thing.”
Asked what he felt the reaction was from fans, Rodgers replied, “We could hear some USA chants as it started, which is fantastic. 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? That’s for you to decide.”
Bennett said he heard negative reactions from fans, even though no players sat or kneeled during the anthem.
“I didn’t really hear much,” Bennett said. “Just some (person) yelling, ‘Put your hands on your heart.’ That’s all I heard. Somebody kept saying, ‘Put your hand on your heart, put your hand on your heart.’ It’s like, ‘Back the (expletive) up.”
As he said he would, Packers coach Mike McCarthy — along with his staff — joined the players in locking arms.
“I think it’s like anything in life: You’re never going to have everybody feel 100 percent the same way,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “But it’s just something we’ve talked about a lot as a football team because I always want to make sure the why — Why are we doing this? — is explained. You want them to just have the opportunity to disagree.
“The process that they’ve gone through, I’m proud of them. The approach is one of a positive nature, and that’s definitely the preference. Locking arms and honoring the flag, I think it’s a very good thing.”
While the CBS and NFL Network cameras captured small groups of fans locking arms during the anthem, it appeared at least in the sections beneath the seventh-floor press box that most fans merely stood as they normally would during the anthem, many of them with a hand over their hearts.
Rodgers has become increasingly vocal about the issues that led to the ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest last year. Rodgers was also among the driving forces behind a team meeting earlier this week that led to the statement and the decision to lock arms to show unity against social injustice, racial inequality and police brutality.
Rodgers has also been adamant in his support of the U.S. military, veterans and police officers, and instead of doing his usual game-day scavenger hunt for free tickets for fans via his Instagram account, Rodgers instead announced Thursday afternoon that he’d given his ticket allotment to some Green Bay police officers.
“This is about equality,” Rodgers had said Tuesday, during his usual gathering with reporters at his locker. "This is about unity and love and growing together as a society and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people.
“We've got to come together and talk about these things and grow as a community, as a connected group of individuals in our society. We're going to continue to show love and unity, and this week we're going to ask the fans to join in as well and come together and show people that we can be connected and we can grow together."
Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson said Wednesday that the week-long discussion about NFL protests and the issues that led to them resulted in him having conversations — both in the locker room and with family members back in Kansas — that he’d never had before.
“I think it’s something that has opened up a lot of things in this locker room through discussion and conversations from guys who’ve grown up in different areas of this country. It’s opened up conversation between, honestly, my family back home and what’s gone on, and what they’re having conversations about back there,” Nelson said. “So, I think it’s great.
“Everyone has experienced different things. I think, like people have said, it’s hard to open up and to listen. A lot of people don’t want to listen nowadays. So I think it’s great. I think the statement is a great way to put the focus back on the main thing of what it’s all about and what we’re doing. And then the unity part as our team is, we’re all supporting one another, we’re all trying to learn from one another.
“Outside this building, a lot of people see us just as football players. But we’re human beings and lot of people in this building have dealt with things that a lot of us — myself included — won’t ever have to deal with. Ever. So you try to learn from their experiences and try to understand that.”