When Donald Trump said that any player who kneels in protest during the national anthem is a “son of a b----,” Dolphins players heard that as a direct attack on two of their own.
Safety Michael Thomas and receiver Kenny Stills knelt before each game in 2016, protesting a string of police shootings of unarmed black men. So during a brief, players-only meeting Saturday night, the Dolphins discussed the best way to show support for their own.
The result: Dolphins players, coaches and even owner Stephen Ross linked arms in solidarity during the singing of the national anthem before Sunday’s game against the Jets. However, not all 53 Dolphins players were standing.
Stills, running back Jay Ajayi, tight end Julius Thomas, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil and safety Maurice Smith all took a knee — and heard about it from Jets unhappy fans.
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“People had their comments,” Julius Thomas said. “They had things to say. I'm not trying to commit that stuff to memory. Those are the people I pray for. I pray for them.”
Stills had hoped to move beyond kneeling this year, because he knew how doing so can eclipse the message.
But after Trump encouraged his supporters to boycott the NFL and said that those who kneel should love their jobs, Stills felt compelled to resume his protest.
“I just felt like the comments by the president were being used to scare us or intimidate us,” Stills said. “We're allowed to do that. I was going to get involved, and there was a bunch of younger guys that wanted to get involved. I felt like it was the right time. I said earlier, it wasn't meant to be divisive. It still isn't meant to be divisive.”
Stills continued: “I've done everything I can to try to bring people together and people still aren't understanding. They're still not listening. At some point in time, you have to step back and have tough conversations.”
Ross has been nothing but supportive of players who kneel in the past, and that did not change Sunday. He told reporters after the game that players asked him to be part of their demonstration, and he happily agreed.
“I think it shows that the team is together,” Ross said. “I think they didn't like the comments being made about them. I think it shows that there's a lot of unity. And I think most people feel the way that the players spoke.”
Ross has known Trump for years in the New York real estate circle and has long been a contributor to Republicans. And yet, Ross spoke out against Trump in a written statement Saturday, and expanded on those remarks when he met with reporters.
“No one likes hearing statements like that,” Ross said. “It's not good for the country. It's very divisive.”
When asked his thoughts on the job Trump has done in office, Ross responded: “I can't agree with everything he's done. But he is our president.”
In addition to kneeling, Stills had T-shirts made up that read #IMWITHKAP — a reference to ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the first to protest during the anthem last year. Kaepernick is out of the league, and his activism is a likely a reason why. Teammates and even some staff members wore the shirts before the game.
As for Michael Thomas, he chose to stand with the vast majority of his teammates Sunday.
“Some said they didn’t want to take a knee but wanted to support,” Thomas explained. “For me, it was big to have everybody who didn’t support us last year or who might have been against us last year to be with us now. That includes the coaching staff and ownership.”