Viscerally, at gut level, it didn't seem right. It just didn't. Not on this day. It looked like the Miami Dolphins – at least the Kneeling Four – picked just the wrong time to join Colin Kaepernick's anthem protest.
What happened on 9/11 has turned that day into one of national remembrance when our differences are set aside and we come together as a country. To symbolize that, on Sunday, the 15th anniversary of those awful terrorist attacks on United States soil, even Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were off the partisan campagn trail.
Because if there is one day to hit a pause button on what divides us and show unity, isn't it Sept. 11?
Yet Dolphins Arian Foster, Jelani Jenkins, Kenny Stills and Michael Thomas chose to kneel during the pregame national anthem in Seattle Sunday – on the one day that symbolizes America getting up off its knees and standing strong. Together.
Condemnation has been far and wide. Even model Kate Upton (!) eviscorated the Dolphins on social media.
But, is there ever just the right time for inconvenient truth?
“When is the time?” as Foster put it. “It's never the time in somebody else's eyes.”
Maybe the anniversary of 9/11 was the perfect day to do what those Dolphins and others across the NFL did Sunday. What better day for protest, perhaps, than the day when we most defiantly and proudly cherish and celebrate the freedoms that terrorists seem to find so incomprehensibly objectionable.
Foster spoke about this for 10 minutes Monday, back in town after Miami's 12-10 season-opening loss in Seattle. Without meaning to, he showed the flesh and blood behind the protester.
“I'm not an activist, man. I'm just another human being trying to figure it out,” he said. “I've always felt certain injustices. Every person of color has at one time. This has been going on for decades. This is not our fight. This is inherited. We kept the conversation going on a system of racism that has been a problem since we were brought here as slaves. It's easy to hate. But freedom runs in our bloodlines, right? If somebody is telling you they don't feel like they're free, why won't you listen to them if you're an American?”
Most Dolphins players did as they always do: Stood with hands over hearts. Four didn't. And there's a word for that.
There's another word for that.
Miami would go on to lose the game – coming so close to staging the biggest upset by far of the NFL's Kickoff Weekend. But a disproportionate amont of attention went to the snapshot of four Dolphins kneeling before the game.
That is the exact point of protest. Attention, awareness and eventually change. But that never happens without the spotlight first.
Coach Adam Gase downplayed the distraction factor.
“We're worried about winning,” he said Monday.
What Kaepernick, those Dolphins and others are doing is a righteous cause – a Black Lives Matter-inspired protest of police shootings of unarmed black men, and, more broadly, a demand for racial equality. The right to such protests is Constitutional, and when also motivated by a sense of moral obligation, well, more power to the protestors.
I wrote a column Aug. 29 in support of Kaepernick, saying that what he was doing not only was not un-American, it was very American, in keeping with our nation's long tradition of grass-roots protest and civil disobdence.
This also is about timing, though, and symbolism. And, in the case of athletes, it is becoming about whether a point has been sufficiently made to the degree a continuation of protests threatens to shift the public tide from support to something else.
When you don't stand for the anthem on the anniversary of 9/11, you might hasten that shift. You might threaten disservice to the greater cause.
Foster, for one, said Monday he'll continue his protest. Stills said it was still being discussed.
In the past couple of weeks it has become clear many athletes share Kaepernick's sensibility, and that's good. It is the monied elite, as many athletes are, standing with the proletariat protesting at street level. But it also is a recognition that even many superstar athletes who are black have been victims of the kind of prejudice that makes one fear for his well-being when seeing police lights flashing in the rear-view mirror.
But it may soon become time to wonder if the athlete-involved anthem protests will continue indefinitely or ought to? There is a seflish element in play, an unintended subversion of “team.” Imagine if the Dolphins had held on Sunday and won. The team's biggest victory in years still would largely have been overshadowed by the Kneeling Four.
Something else to consider that has not been asked but maybe should be:
Is it right for professional athletes to involve their teams and uniforms in a personal protest? There is no doubt Foster et al have every right to feel as they do and demonstrate that. But do teams also have a right to say, “Be as socially active as you wish on your own time. On the team's time, please just do what we are paying you to do.”
This notion simmered Sunday when Stills, one of the pregame protestors, dropped a perfectly thrown long pass that that should have been an 80-yard touchdown – and meant the winning points.
The protest and drop surely were unrelated yet Dolfans had an excuse to shake heads (or fists) and suggest Stills spend less time protesting and more time catching.
Even as I support the Dolphins' Kneeling Four and the fact they did it on 9/11, I don't see it as unreasonable for franchises to both support their athletes' rights to activism but not want those beliefs to speak for the uniform on game days.
That's any cause, by the way, not just the one Kaepernick fronts that most would agree is noble. The Dolphins or any athletes have every right to feel as strongly as they wish about racial injustice, gun control, abortion, animal rights, politics or anything else. But is it also reasonable that teams insist only the player – not the activist – show up on game days?
The question alone may be politically incorrrect, but it bears wondering aloud.
Yet the greater good trumps questions or criticism.
As Arian Foster put it: “It's worth all the backlash because you get that message across.”