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Sports fans have never seemed so divided

Sports fans have never seemed so divided
The Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, center, take a knee prior to the national anthem on Sept. 25. (Matt York / Associated Press)

All across America last weekend, professional football players locked arms, took knees, stayed seated, or simply didn't show up in a national anthem protest that symbolized their unity.

In Southern California, a former pro athlete and Vietnam veteran has never felt more estranged.

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"It disgusts me," Roy Gleason said.

In the wake of a profane insult from President Trump, the NFL made headlines and magazine covers by teaming up to send a retaliatory message celebrating freedom of speech.

The only Dodger to have earned a Purple Heart felt free to turn off the television.

"That's it, I'm done with them," Gleason said.

What a strange, strained affair this has been. In a display of peaceful social activism on Sunday and Monday, the diverse NFL attempted to become a nationwide symbol of harmony. Yet, this country's sports fans have never seemed more divided.

What happened during this landmark melding of society and sports didn't bring us closer together, it tore us further apart. The one place where folks from all backgrounds could bond together without political affiliation suddenly seems like a very different place.

Our one collective escape from reality is now consumed by it. You can no longer just sit in the stands and be a fan, you have to be a flag fan, or a protest fan. You can no longer just cheer for your team, you have to cheer for your beliefs, and boo others beliefs, or be criticized for remaining silent.

By calling out NFL social issues protesters who do not stand for the national anthem as a "son of a bitch" who should be "fired!" Trump drove his latest wedge into the heart of a sports world that is most comfortable staying out of such arguments.

Roy Gleason poses for a photograph at Dodger Stadium in 2003. Gleason played one game for the Dodgers before being drafted and sent to Vietnam.
Roy Gleason poses for a photograph at Dodger Stadium in 2003. Gleason played one game for the Dodgers before being drafted and sent to Vietnam. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

While the ensuing protests were compelling and heartfelt enough to believe that the NFL won, there was also a sense that a national cohesion was lost.

"That flag stands for the United States of America, except, watching these games, I don't think we're so united, are we?" Gleason said.

Gleason is a powerful voice on one side of the argument. In 1963, in his first Dodgers plate appearance, the outfielder hit a double down the left-field line. The following spring, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam and never played for the Dodgers again.

His physical skills eroded in the jungle. He lost his World Series ring in the bush. His left wrist and calf were shattered by a shell while he was acting as the point man on a mission. By the time he was honorably discharged and returned to baseball, he never had a chance.

Today, living in Temecula at age 74, he enjoys his status as one of the Dodgers' all-time leading hitters — he retired batting 1.000 — and still closely follows sports. He loves that the national anthem is played before virtually every game in every league. He defends the freedom that the song and flag represent. But he questions using them for political purposes.

"We fought to give you the right to demonstrate," he said. "But not by disrespecting the symbol of what we fought for."

Mark Ingram, one of the New Orleans Saints who sat during the anthem Sunday, is a powerful representative of the other side.

"Yeah [the fans] were saying, 'Stand up losers' and all that … telling us we're the worst type of Americans," he told reporters. "But I love my country. And I want what's best for my country. And in order for us to be great again as a country, and not have all this racism and bigotry and injustice, we all need to realize that there is a problem and be there for each other to correct the problem."

There are confusing messages on both sides.

Some of the fans who are ripping the players for disrespecting the anthem are the same fans who shout their team's name during the anthem, or interrupt the song with a long rip of an opposing player, interruptions heard in virtually every sports venue.

We felt like President Trump’s speech was an assault on our most cherished right – freedom of speech."


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The protest was about two important yet very different things. Some of the players who were taking a knee were echoing the statement first made in the summer of 2016 by Colin Kaepernick when the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback began his social justice movement by spending the anthem sitting on the bench. Others were simply standing up to the verbal assault by Trump.

“Me and my teammates …we felt like President Trump’s speech was an assault on our most cherished right — freedom of speech,” said Von Miller, a Denver Broncos linebacker who kneeled. “So collectively we felt like we had to do something before this game.”

There was the incredibly contradictory messages of the owners who, despite several being big financial supporters of Trump, linked arms and stood with their teams. If they are so supportive of Kaepernick's message, why won't one of them give him a job? Kaepernick, 29, is a former Super Bowl quarterback who last season threw for 16 touchdowns with only four interceptions and a 90.7 passer rating. At this point, the only reasonable explanation for his unemployment is that he is being blackballed.

A microcosm of this weekend’s conflict could be found with the Pittsburgh Steelers, ironically after their coach, Mike Tomlin, attempted to avoid controversy and keep his team in the locker room during the anthem.

"It's about us remaining solid," Tomlin said at the time. "We're not going to be divided by anything or anyone. We're not going to let divisive times or divisive individuals affect our agenda."

But then his starting left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, was seen standing by himself at the edge of a tunnel with his hand over his heart during the anthem. Villanueva's stance was so admired, his No. 78 jersey immediately became the top seller on NFLShop.com.

Then Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he couldn’t sleep that night because he wished they had been standing on the field.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Alejandro Villanueva stood for the anthem on Sunday but later apologized to his teammates, who did come out onto the field during the anthem.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Alejandro Villanueva stood for the anthem on Sunday but later apologized to his teammates, who did come out onto the field during the anthem. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

Villanueva apologized to his teammates for appearing to abandon them, saying he was just standing in the tunnel when the anthem began playing and felt he couldn't leave.

Tomlin awoke Monday to find himself the object of a racial slur on Facebook from a Pennsylvania fire chief named Paul Smith.

"This national anthem ordeal has been sort of out of control," Villanueva said.

For folks like Gleason, the ordeal is in witnessing it.

"To the soldiers we were fighting, that flag was America, we were America, I was America," Gleason said. "To see so many people disrespecting that flag, it's time for somebody to speak up in defense of that America."

His message has been loudly heard. But so, too, have the messages of the professional athletes, including Los Angeles' WNBA Sparks team that stayed in the locker room during the national anthem for the first two games of the Finals.

So many voices. So many sides. So much freedom. So much pain. America the Beautiful. America the Divided.

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

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