this is "nightline." tonight, united they kneel. ♪ oh say can you see nfl players across the country, sitting, kneeling and locking arms during the national anthem in the face of the president's condemnation. >> when somebody disrespects our flag, say get the son of a [ bleep ] off the field right now. >> reporte >> the people run this country, not one individual, and damn sure not him. >> why they say these protests are as american as football. plus, a history of dissent. this current nfl kneeler movement may have kicked off with colin kaepernick, but when it comes to athletes using their platform for change, he did not start the fire. >> you want me to go somewhere
tradition. after president trump criticized nfl players who refused to stand during the national anthem, the president not backing down from this controversy, as he faces grave crises from north korea to health care on capitol hill. we'll take you inside this latest american flash point tonight. ♪ oh say can you see >> reporter: monday night football, the latest flash point in the debate over the national anthem. tonight players from the dallas cowboys and the arizona cardinals linking arms during the anthem. but it was this scene just before the song started. the entire cowboys team, including owner jerry jones -- >> boos can be heard. >> reporter: -- a supporter of president trump's taking a knee. >> wouldn't you love to see one of these nfl owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a
[ bleep ] off the field right now, out! >> reporter: just the latest reaction in the league-wide response to the president's controversial words. >> he's fired. he's fired! >> i know for a fact that i'm no son of a [ bleep ]. >> and we're a unified front. there ain't no dividing us, you know what i'm saying. i guess we're all son of a [ bleep ]. >> reporter: the president's comments come as america is locked in an escalating nuclear crisis with north korea. as protesters swarm capitol hill to speak out against the gop's latest seemingly doomed attempt to repeal and replace obamacare. and as we approach tomorrow's special election in alabama, where the president was stumping for incumbent luther strange, when he criticized players who kneeled during the national anthem. >> total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. >> reporter: while many fans
agree with the president -- >> a lot of these players today are young, naive and stupid. >> that you should stand for the national anthem. >> you're disrespecting the team, you're contrary to everything else on national tfr. >> i think it's a sad day for our country, it's a sad day for the national football league. >> reporter: trump's tough words set off demonstrations across the league. more than 200 players kneeling in protest in game after game. >> i got a daughter. she's going to have to live in this world. you know what i'm saying? i'mma do whatever i gotta do to make sure she can look at her dad and be like, hey, he did something, tried to make a change. >> at the end of the day, it's about doing the right thing. as a whole and as a team, we came together and felt like it was the right thing. >> reporter: teammates, coaches and some owners standing in solidarity. >> we back them 100%. >> reporter: the outrage coming at the president from both sides, from frequent critics -- >> you cannot fire someone for exercising their constitutional
rights. it's illegal! >> reporter: and even from a former nfl coach who campaigned for trump. >> i'm pissed off, i'll be honest with you. calling our players s.o.b.s and that kind of stuff, that's not the men that i know. >> reporter: many view trump's actions about the predominantly black players n stark contrast to his comments about the demonstrations in charlottesville. >> but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. >> reporter: the president making no apologies about his comments then or now. >> this has nothing to do with race or anything else. this has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag. >> does the president believe that there are very fine people who kneeled yesterday watching those games, or are they all s.o.b.s? >> i think you're trying to conflate different things here. look, we certainly respect the rights that people have, but i think we also need to focus.
again, this isn't about the president being against something, which is what everybody wants to drive. this is about the president being for something. >> i don't see in getting better. when i see these kind of divisive remarks, you're not being the leader we need you to be. because the leader we need you to be will deter violence at all costs instead of inflame it. >> when you think it's going to get worse, what do you think it means? >> we're in a position now, where i'm seeing it be, us versus them. we're no longer america. >> it's ludicrous to say that any of this is not about race. that's what the entire aspect of this whole thing has been about, discrimination, racism, and police brutality. >> reporter: the anthem debate began more than a year ago, then 49ers quarterback colin kaepernick sitting on the sidelines during a preseason game as the rest of his team stood. sitting down he said, to take a stand against the growing number of unarmed black men killed by police and racial injustice in general. >> i'm going to continue to stand with the people that are
being oppressed. when there's significant change and i feel like that flag represents what it's supposed to represent. >>r. >> reporter: a backlash followed. >> you have to show some respect, especially in this position that we're in, where we're playing a game for a living, it's shameful. >> reporter: it's evolved into the kneel with a raised fist. seattle seahawk michael bennett is one of the players who joined the protest and faced harsh criticism for doing so. >> for those who would say, your stance is unamerican, not to stand up during the national anthem, you say? >> it's the most american thing that can you do is fight for equality for everybody. at this point, i think it's unamerican, what happened to me happened. >> reporter: weeks after bennett began his protest during the anthem, he was cuffed and detained by las vegas police before being released. as he told my "nightline" co-anchor byron pitts, bennett believes that takedown was
racially motivated. >> i'm a black man. through all the stuff i've done in society, at the end of the day, i'm still a black man. >> reporter: the las vegas metropolitan police department denies that accusation. >> i see no evidence that race played any role in this incident. >> reporter: the decision about how to handle the national anthem this past sunday was wrenching for some players and their teams. reigning super bowl champ tom brady, a trump friend, linked arms with his teammates, but wouldn't directly address the president's comments. >> i'm not getting into any of that. >> reporter: by monday morning, he said this to a radio show. >> i certainly disagree with what he said and thought it was just divisive and like i said, it's eye just wa-- i just want my teammates. i'm not one to say, that's wrong or that's right, but i do believe in what i believe in. >> reporter: the pittsburgh steelers were one of the teams that chose not to take the field. >> we will not allow politics to
divide us. they discussed it, couldn't come to an understanding, so they chose to remove themselves from it. >> one steelers player, a former army ranger stood just at the edge of the field. today his jersey rocketed to number one in sales. but today, villaneuva said he regretted his choice to stand without his team. >> that is the very embarrassing part on my end in what transpires. because when everybody sees an image of me standing by mids, everybody thinks that the team and the steelers are not behind me, and that's wrong. >> reporter: what was once a lonely battle for a handful of players is spreading throughout the nfl and even to other leagues. >> it's not about the disrespect of the flag and our military and everybody that has made this world free. it is about equality and people having the option and the freedom to speak upon things that they feel that's not
injust. >> reporter: basketball mega star lebron james mincing no words today. >> the people run this country, not one individual. and damn sure not him. >> reporter: so many sports fans who are revolted by the idea of politics being injected in sports. >> yes. it is. when i turn on a sports game, i want to escape from all this madness that is occurring. but once again, you have to understand both sides of the equation. you're talking about regular human beings as well, who play these sports. they have a major platform. and at the same time, we almost scold athletes for not saying how they truly feel. >> reporter: this debate yet again revealing a nation divided. much of it fueled by a man who made the following promise to our barbara walters. >> i think the thing that will surprise people, i'll be a unifier. i think i'll bring people together, and that includes blacks and whites and
everything. i think people will come together. ♪ next, think politics and sports don't mix? kareem abdul-jabbar and jackie robinson would disagree. the history of professional athletes taking a stand on and off the field. with my moderate to severe crohn's disease,... ...i was always searching for ways to manage my symptoms. i thought i had it covered. then i realized managing was all i was doing. when i finally told my doctor, he said humira was for people like me who have tried other medications,... but still experience the symptoms of moderate to severe crohn's disease. in clinical studies, the majority of patients on humira saw significant symptom relief... ...and many achieved remission. humira can lower your ability to fight infections... ...including tuberculosis. serious, sometimes fatal infections and cancers,... including lymphoma, have happened; as have blood, liver, and nervous system problems, serious allergic reactions,... ...and new or worsening heart failure. before treatment, get tested for tb.
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to fight for a cause. here tonight, abc's chris connelly. >> reporter: for colin kaepernick, it began a year ago, hoping to send a message. >> there's a lot of things that need to change. one specifically and police brutality. >> this conversation started around one quarterback in san francisco who decided to use his platform to try to draw attention to criminal justice reform, police brutality, and innocent people dying at the hands of police officers. >> reporter: this weekend, he saw his message and his means of conveying it, command the attention of the nation. even stevie wonder, life-long entertainer and activist, during a concert in new york's central park. >> tonight i'm taking a knee for america. but not just one knee. i'm taking both knees. both knees in prayer for our planet, our future, our leaders of the world, and our globe. >> reporter: unsigned by any nfl
team for the 2017 season, kaepernick could not be found on the field where he said he wants to be, where nfl analysts and players have said he deserves to be. >> do i think kaepernick is better than some of these starting quarterbacks in this league? absolutely. should he be on a roster, in my opinion? absolutely. >> reporter: instead, he could be found here, in cyberspace, retweeting images of players and others who support him, including military widows, as if in response to reaction he told the undefeated that he anticipated. >> you're going to have that backlash for trying to fight for people. and that was something i was fully prepared for. >> without question, he's not in the league because of the protest, because of the knee. the fact is, colin kaepernick is the face of this protest in the nfl. >> reporter: 70 years ago, this was the face of change and of social activism in sports, when jackie robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947, with the brooklyn dodgers. as he told dick cabot on abc in
1972. >> the whole situation in breaking the barrier was done simply because we had a purpose in mind to go out and win. then you move into a town like brooklyn and it was just fantastic the way the fans responded and reacted. a great bunch of people. >> reporter: his heroism made him a revered american. a true lead in the area of race. at the 1968 summer olympics, this would be one of the golfinizing images of its time. tommy smith and john carlos raising gloved fists. kareem abdul-jabbar, a presidential medal of freedom recipient in 2016, would boycott those games in 1968. as he told nbc sports -- >> the voting rights act and the civil rights act had really not taken hold. and life for black americans was still touch and go. >> this is a tradition across the country.
we've always had athletes to use their platforms to speak out around issues of social justice. >> reporter: also in the '60s, muhammad ali, heavyweight champion of the world, a voice for black empowerment and dissent as on wabc's "like it is is." >> you won't even stand up for me in america for my religious beliefs. >> reporter: ali life biographer says activism is ali's greatest legacy. >> ali had the power to speak out because he was a superstar. now we see athletes taking more responsibility, in part because they have more control over their own careers. >> reporter: ali declared himself a conscientious objector in 1966. >> here today, his rejected induction into the military service. what happens now to his title? >> reporter: ali would be stripped of his title and prosecuted. in 1971, the supreme court would rule unanimously in ali's favor. >> he said he would give up his life. he would sooner die before he
was compromise his convictions and i think that's why he matters today. >> reporter: billie jean king would advocate for equal rights and opportunity at the miami open in 2016. >> everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs. okay? i want women to have the cake, the icing and the cherry on top. >> reporter: in summer 2016, the wnba's minnesota lynx would bear black lives matter shirts. >> this is a human issue, and we need to speak out for change together. >> reporter: four off-duty police officers providing security at the game in the twin cities would leave their post in protest. later that year, megan rapinoe of the u.s. women's national team would also take a knee. and an unprecedented role for the best player in the n, lebro
speaking out on such shows as the espys. >> it's time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, what are we doing to create change? >> he has the right to do so. i think the more voices that are heard, the better off we'll be as a country. because we need to learn how to respect each other's voices and not retort that statement with anger or divisiveness. >> the question is, whether or not the nfl community has been changed by this. and that is one only the players themselves can answer. what exactly were they protesting on sunday? were they protesting trump's criticism of them protesting? or were they protesting the things that colin kaepernick was protesting, racial inequality and social justice? >> reporter: a mid the tumult, a voice from the past, jackie robinson's voice. the aclu tweeting a page from his 1972 memoir in this american
pioneer looks back on his life. as he says, a black man in a white world, and declares, i cannot stand and sing the anthem. for "nightline," i'm chris connelly in los angeles. >> our thanks to chris connelly. and we'll be right back. abc news "nightline" brought to you by the lincoln continental. ♪ with 33 individual vertebrae and 640 muscles in the human body no two of us are alike. life made more effortless through adaptability. the perfect position seat in the lincoln continental. ♪ you're more than just a bathroom disease.. you're a life of unpredictable symptoms.
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