Charlotte, N.C. – Before all of the New Orleans Saints stood tall en route to posting their first victory of the season, a 34-13 victory over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, several of them sat during the singing of the national anthem as they protested comments made Friday night by President Donald Trump, who suggested that athletes be fired for sitting during the national anthem.
President Trump used profanity to describe such athletes and specifically referred to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who initiated a protest last season to bring attention to racial inequities and police brutality, among other injustices.
Among the Saints who sat during the national anthem were safety Kenny Vaccaro, receiver Brandon Coleman, defensive end Cam Jordan and running backs Mark Ingram and Zach Line. Several teammates stood next to them and placed hands on their shoulders as a show of support, including punter Thomas Morstead and tight end Coby Fleener.
"I'm proud of every one of those guys," Coach Sean Payton said Sunday after the game. "I would say, personally, I'm disappointed in the comments that were made. I think we need a little bit more wisdom in that office. That's being a little blunt, but that's how I feel. I want that guy to be one of the smarter guys in the room and it seems like every time he's opening his mouth, it's something that's dividing our country and not pulling us together."
Vaccaro said that, for him, it somewhat was a spontaneous decision to sit.
"I said (to teammate Rafael) Bush, I ain't getting up,' " Vaccaro said. "(Bush) said, 'I ain't getting up either.' And then Alex (Okafor) came and next thing you know, they're sitting by me. And next thing you know, Thomas Morstead puts his hand on Bush's back, and Fleener comes over.
"We didn't plan anything. I just was thinking about it and was like, 'You know what, I'm gonna sit.' I'm half-white and half-black. For me, it's just not right what's going on in our country. I wasn't going to sit initially, but after those comments, I was like, I'm not using my platform the right way if I don't sit."
Vaccaro said he considered the unity significant.
"It made me tear up," he said. "It was emotional. For that moment, it was bigger than football. NFL athletes spend our whole lives stressing about football, our bodies, what we eat. Then when we go home, we've got to be an All-American dad, a Pro Bowl dad. Our lives are consumed with football constantly. But for that moment, that anthem, it was bigger. There was a unity, a brotherhood. I think it helped us win the game, to be honest."
Jordan, who has been on a USO tour for the NFL and is one of the Saints' leaders in community service activities and hours, said he spoke to several family members who have served in the military before making his decision.
"I've got my hands in the community every week that I can," he said. "For somebody at the highest level – what I assume to be the highest level and most diplomatic office, the office that you normally say, 'We're Americans' – for us to have to sit back and really gauge how we feel, that's something that I've been contemplating since that statement was made.
"For him to make a statement the way he did, it's just not what I consider presidential.
"I've gone on a USO tour, I have nothing but tremendous respect for troops. I talked to an uncle who served in the Navy, and I talked to him and he was like, 'Look, this is what we fought for. We fought for the ability to exercise our rights.' "
Coleman also raised a clenched right fist after scoring a touchdown against the Panthers.
"That was spontaneous," he said. "All spontaneous.
"(The raised fist symbolized) standing strong with my people. We all have to be unified, but especially with black people."
Morstead said it was easy for him to walk over and show support to his teammates who sat.
"A lot of things go into that moment," he said. "It was really disappointing to hear what the president said the other day, using profanity to describe players in this league.
"When I see teammates that our wives are friends, our kids play together and some of these guys have been on USO tours, they've supported the troops – there's nothing about disrespecting the flag or disrespecting our troops. These guys have given their time to go on tours to show them how much they support them.
"These guys are brothers to me and I just wanted to show them that teammates of all different races are supporting them. And for my own conscience, as well."
Quarterback Drew Brees did not participate in the protest, and said he believes that the playing of the national anthem and respecting the flag should be a unifying act.
"I disagree with what the president said and how he said it," he said. "I think it's very unbecoming of the office of the president of the United States to talk like that, to degrade people like that. Obviously, he has disappointed a lot of people.
"Do I think there's inequality in this country? Yes I do. Do I think that there's racism? Yes I do. I think there's inequality for women in the workplace, I think there's inequality for people of color, for minorities, for immigrants. But as it pertains to the national anthem, I will always feel that if you're an American, that the national anthem for us all to stand up together, to be unified, and to show respect for our country. To show respect for what it stands for, the birth of our nation."