Where have all the kneelers gone?
There were only two Sunday: Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson, Dolphins teammates and allies in the fight against social injustice.
In a league of more than 1,500 active players, Stills and Wilson were the only players to take a knee during the national anthem.
That’s down dramatically from the movement’s zenith in Week 3 of last year, when dozens protested after President Donald Trump called those who kneel a ‘son of a b----.’
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There still are other demonstrations — Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn raised a fist; Eagles cornerback Malcolm Butler wore a T-shirt arguing for criminal justice reform — but Stills and Wilson on Sunday were the only players to kneel, which has been the most divisive issue the NFL has faced in years.
Stills, meeting with Miami reporters Wednesday, didn’t seem to care — or give hint that he’s going to stop any time soon.
“Not something that I really think about or worry about,” said Stills, who has knelt to protest police brutality and racism since 2016. “Obviously, we’d be encouraged to see more guys participating in the protest, but I understand that everyone makes their own decisions. I’ll continue doing what I’m doing. It’s never been about that. It’s not about what other guys are doing. I understand my position and what I’m standing for, what I’m standing up for.”
Stills added: “We started the protest two years ago now, three years ago now, and we’re not going anywhere. It’s not going to change. Activism isn’t something you just kind of get involved in and then turn your back on it.”
There are many possible explanations why kneeling has all but disappeared from NFL sidelines. One is that many of the NFL’s socially active players have determined the demonstrations do more harm than good. Another is influence from their bosses; while the NFL backed off a kneeling ban due to backlash, most owners want their players to stand at attention.
But perhaps the simplest explanation is this: the most prominent protestors, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid, are no longer in the league. Those players are accusing NFL owners of colluding to keep them out of the league over their activism.
That has left Stills and Wilson on an island — and a target of Trump. The president on Sunday retweeted a story about their Week 1 protest with a picture of the players kneeling and the caption “Welcome to 2018 NFL.”
“I don’t think that’s something I really worry about,” Stills said. “I just do what I do and [the media] make it what you want to make it. ... Once your eyes are open to some of the things that are happening, you continue to work and try to grow and create change for the rest of your life. It’s something I’m committed to forever. It’s not about being the face or who gets the notoriety for it. It’s just what I care about outside of work and what I spend my time doing when I’m not here working for the Dolphins.”
Stills insists he has not been pressured by the people who run the Dolphins to stop, and said that coach Adam Gase “understands and we’re on the same page.”
Outside of the building, however, Stills has been called many things — many of which unsuitable for print. A common criticism is that he not only disrespects the flag, but also the military by not standing during the anthem.
But those people either do not know the work in the community Stills does, or simply ignore it. On Tuesday — the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks — Stills and Wilson visited the Miami VA to visit disabled and injured veterans.
The players’ reception?
“There was a couple of instances of people being very thankful and encouraging me to continue to protest, and then there was also people who I think were a little bit more afraid to say it in front of some of the cameras and the people that were around,” Stills said. “But I could say a handful of people were very thankful with the protest and understand what we’re doing. And so that meant a lot to me as well. There was no negativity or anything like that felt in there.”
He added: “It is important to see and know that veterans understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and know that we’re not against them and it’s never been about them. I think that’s really important and it means a lot to us. Like I said before, this has never been against the military or the flag or the police. And so just for them to have the opportunity, for us to have the conversation, for them to approach me and say that, that meant a bunch.”