GREEN BAY — If you’re headed to Thursday night’s Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears game at Lambeau Field, expect to be asked to lock arms with the fan next to you — whether they’re black or white, or wearing green-and-gold or navy blue-and-burnt orange.
The request will be coming from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks and the rest of the Packers players, who want fans to be part of what Rodgers called Tuesday a show of “unity” amid the spirited and oftentimes ugly back-and-forth about NFL players’ protests before and during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games.
“This is about equality,” Rodgers 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.”
Before Sunday’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Rodgers and a host of other Packers locked arms before the national anthem began. A handful of other players stood on the sideline for the anthem but were not part of the chain; three players — Bennett, Kendricks and rookie cornerback Kevin King — sat on the bench. None of the players on the Packers’ sideline actually knelt.
Rodgers said he has seen “some positive conversation” about the underlying issues that have spurred the protests, and that “there’s been a great sense of unity and love and support in this locker room, guys coming together” in the wake of President Donald Trump’s criticism of NFL players.
But on social media and elsewhere, Rodgers hasn’t seen the same constructive reaction, Rodgers said.
“Outside the building, I think the message has been diluted a little bit and it’s been kind of taken away from what we were trying to do: Show a united front (by) guys linking up together,” said Rodgers, who had two Instagram posts related to the subject on Sunday, including one photo which showed him kneeling alongside wide receivers Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams during a water break during a training camp practice. “There’s been a lot of hatred on my social media, probably other people’s social media as well. Frankly, (I) don’t understand it, a lot of it.”
Rodgers challenged those who argue that players are disrespecting veterans and members of the military with their protests, saying, “It’s never been about the military or our men and women in uniform. Like I said after the game, we love and support them. Each of us, I’m sure, have done charity events for them. I’ve been to Fort Wainwright in Alaska and done PT (physical training) with those guys at 5 in the morning. We love them. We’re thankful for the opportunity they give us.”
The idea of getting fans involved sprung from what Rodgers called “a fantastic team meeting” in which players discussed their various perspectives on the issues.
“I think it was Marty’s idea,” said Kendricks, who said he sat during the anthem for two reasons — to support Bennett, so he wouldn’t be sitting alone; and to bring awareness to people in his wife’s native Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. “Aaron spoke first (in the meeting) and he kind of laid it out and laid out the fact that he’s on our side and he understands the message being conveyed and (that we’re) trying to get across.
“And then Marty wrote a statement and in the statement he said we’re going to lock arms and he’s going to challenge the fans to lock arms as well. So it kind of puts them in a position where it’s like, ‘Look, you’re either going to unite with us, or you’re not.’ I think that’s really cool because it puts them in a position where it’s like, ‘Now we’re talking to you. So you make a decision — peacefully make a decision.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy emphasized that he believes the protests should lead to more listening from both sides of the debate.
“There’s a lot of things that are being said. I think more importantly, I think it’s a time to listen,” McCarthy said. “I think everybody can do a better job of listening and make sure the messages that are trying to be delivered are heard and vice versa. I think that’s the biggest thing in life.
“Everybody throws around (the phrase) ‘lack of communication,’ and I know personally — regardless if it’s here professionally with my players, or even at home with my children — I think we all can sit back and listen a little more right now.”