Sports

NFL star Marcedes Lewis defends right to protest

Some players kneel or lock arms in London

WEMBLEY STADIUM, London (CNN) - Thousands of miles from US shores NFL players took their protests to another level.

As the American national anthem sounded around London's Wembley Stadium, over 20 players and staff from the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars took a knee to protest against racial and social injustice and also defy US President Donald Trump.

Hours later, their counterparts back in the US followed suit as players throughout the NFL sat or knelt before kickoff. Others opted to link arms, while the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans remained in their locker rooms.

The protests came amidst a flurry of remarks from Trump, who tweeted that "sports fans should never condone players that do not stand ... NFL should change policy!"

That's a view that has won support from several NASCAR team owners, who said over the weekend they wouldn't tolerate a similar protest movement in their sport.

However, a number of fans at Wembley for Sunday's game felt the players were within their rights to protest. Of the six supporters randomly interviewed by CNN, only one backed Trump.

"Every American has a right to any opinion they want to hold as long as it's peaceful," Nicholas di Santos, an American in London for the Ravens vs. Jaguars game, told CNN Sport.

"If they feel people are being treated unfairly and they want to start a peaceful protest to start a national conversation that sparks more interest in it, then they certainly do [have the right]."

Shyanne Hafford, a Ravens fan, was in agreement.

"NFL players and generally athletes of televised sports are role models to people on both sides of the debate.

"For them to kneel, it's a peaceful protest, rather than violent ones you see on the news and social media. They definitely have a right to do that, but they should keep in mind those that are on opposite sides that they look up to."

'Throwing their hands up to the constitutions'

However, Ravens fan Nolande Kirby, who had traveled from Baltimore for the game, was more critical of the kneeling players.

"I believe everyone who was brought up in the United States of America should honor what was vowed in the United States of America," she said.

"We have the pledge of allegiance; we have certain things we were supposed to do because that is how we were brought up traditionally to do so.

"Anyone not following those traditions is throwing their hands up to the constitution and everything we were brought up to honor."

'One team'

NFL players began to kneel during the national anthem last year, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during "The Star-Spangled Banner" before kickoff, sparking both support and backlash.

The Ravens had been linked with signing the quarterback, a move owner Steve Bisciotti said could "upset some people."

The debate has intensified after Trump said NFL team owners should fire or suspend players for kneeling during the national anthem.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded by labeling Trump's comments as "divisive," only for Trump to tweet that Goodell was "trying to justify total disrespect certain players show to our country.

"Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable," Trump wrote in a separate tweet.

Sunday's protests were unique given the numbers involved.

Jaguars' owner Shad Khan, who donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration committee, also took to the field and locked arms with players.

The message from the Jaguars' camp after the game at Wembley was one of solidarity, and players admitted that having their owner on the field helped the cause.

"We actually met before the game in the locker room as captains and as owners and as management. We all decided what we were going to do, just had conversations to get everybody on the same page," Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith told reporters.

"We weren't going to tell anybody what they had to do, but we said we were going to lock arms to show that we support the guys who are kneeling and the guys who are standing. This is one team, and that's what we wanted to come out and show we were unified."

Smith added that Khan's presence "made the situation a little lighter ... he just took it to a level of him being a great man in my eyes."

'You've got people who are scared'

Tight end Marcedes Lewis, who scored three touchdowns to help the Jaguars to a resounding 44-7 victory in London, said he was "torn" about whether to kneel, eventually settling on locking arms.

"Obviously it's a touchy subject and the situation yesterday with the President and the things he was saying.

"We knew it was going to be a weird situation for everybody coming in. I myself, my stepfather is a Purple Heart," added Lewis, referring to the medal awarded to service members who suffer wounds in combat. "Part of me is torn."

He went on to acknowledge the perceived social injustice that is motivating players across the game to take a knee.

"You've got people who are scared. Scared to go outside, scared to be in certain places ... I was born on the east side of Long Beach, Miami, until I was 15 years old, so I've been a part of it for a long time.

"It sucks to see it's literally getting worse. It shouldn't be that way. I honestly feel that with the situation yesterday, with the President calling a lot of the athletes out, I think God put us here for a reason, he put us here to lead from the front."


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