Colorado military veterans, NFL players disagree about anthem protests

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - October 1, 2017 - Updated: October 1, 2017

Kneeling during the national anthem before the Denver Broncos play the Buffalo Bills in week 3 at New Era Stadium, Orchard Park, NY. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

Air Force Academy hockey coach Frank Serratore got a big laugh at a luncheon last week.

He knew the crowd approved of his performance on the ice.

“That’s evidenced by the fact that nobody took a knee during the national anthem,” he said to a crowd of hockey boosters at the Antlers Hotel.

Standing for patriotic rites is nothing novel in Colorado Springs, which has the state’s largest concentration of active-duty troops and veterans, 120,000 of them. The fact that the crowd laughed at Serratore’s anthem joke is what makes the situation unique.

From bars that host veterans in Fountain to the Denver Broncos locker room in Dove Valley, nobody in Colorado seemed to find humor in kneeling by players that took place across the National Football League a week ago.

Broncos running back C.J. Anderson compared talking about kneeling on the Broncos sideline to asking Atlanta Falcons players about blowing their 28-3 lead in February’s Super Bowl.

“I think we should leave it out,” he said, sternly.

But Colorado’s veterans aren’t so quick to move on. At a bar in Fountain Thursday night, the game was off and Fox News was on the screen as graying men discussed burning jerseys to show their contempt for the NFL.

One Army vet who would only give his name as “Ranger” didn’t like being asked why veterans are so upset.

“Go look in a graveyard,” the Persian Gulf War veteran growled.

Veterans have differing opinions on the issue, but a consistent level of passion, according to their posts on Facebook. Just asking about the kneeling seemed a good way to start a fight in the Pikes Peak region.

“If you want to protest people, there are ways to do it without disrespecting the flag, the country, and all of those who fought and died for it,” wrote Army veteran Andrew Gordon. “People have protests all the time without having to disrespect our country in the process.”

Wrote Air Force veteran Marty France, “We shouldn’t ask the athletes we watch to help us validate our patriotic feelings (or lack thereof), nor should we put them in a spot where they are expected to express their personal beliefs.”

It kicks up debate in the Broncos locker room, too.

Coming off a soggy practice field at Dove Valley after the Broncos hardest workout of the week, first-year coach Vance Joseph wanted to focus on the Raiders, not whether his players should stand or kneel for the anthem.

But even the Broncos’ biggest rivalry couldn’t eclipse the controversy.

“In my opinion, talking to the players, the kneeling was never about the military,” Joseph said.

The kneeling started last year as the personal statement of a few players led by then-San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who wanted to call attention to police practices against African-Americans. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall joined in, losing a few sponsors by bending a knee in September 2016.

Players protesting racism and brutality by kneeling during the anthem has been controversial, but it spiked after President Donald Trump blasted the practice during an Alabama political rally, saying that players involved – he didn’t call them players – should be fired.

Trump threw fuel on the flames Monday, taking to Twitter to call out players, owners and the league for kneeling. And, of course, many who did so on Sept. 24 were reacting to the president’s original remarks.

“Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!” Trump wrote in one of several tweets on the issue.

Of the 53 Broncos players, 32 took a knee during the anthem before last week’s loss to the Buffalo Bills.

“I’m not sure what it’s about anymore,” Joseph said. “It’s beginning to be a confusing topic.”

At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Austin Traylor is a rookie tight end who’s fighting for playing time with the Broncos. He doesn’t drive any of the $100,000 Mercedes SUVs that pack the players’ parking lot at Dove Valley. Most practice squad players like Traylor make $7,200 a week during the season. That’s little compared to C.J. Anderson’s $18 million over four years.

But he still shares the opinions of many of his teammates. Players didn’t take a knee with the intention of angering troops and veterans, he said.

“The initial intent was not to aim at them,” he said.

Standing in the crowded locker room, he said his teammates understand that their right to protest is guaranteed by men and women in camouflage uniforms with guns.

“They fought for our freedom to do whatever we want,” he said.

Traylor has been troubled by incidents of police brutality that have drawn nationwide protests. NFL players, no matter their paycheck or starting status, may be able to do something about it, he said.

Sports like football draw a big audience, with the NFL leading the pack.

“Sports are also a way to bring light to social issues,” he said.

But using the national anthem as the opportunity to make a statement has many veterans upset.

Air Force veteran Michael Brundage, who earned the Purple Heart for wounds overseas, says there are plenty of ways to get the point across.

“If you are upset with the government, protest or even write a letter, but don’t disgrace those who sacrificed it all to give you that option,” he said.

Leaders of the Broncos are quick to point out that the team has always supported the troops. Players in orange and blue are frequent visitors to Colorado’s seven military bases.

“They think throwing money at a few veterans’ and first responders’ causes makes it okay for them to disrespect us the rest of the time,” Army veteran Jay Bowen said. “Too bad. And I blame the NFL leadership and owners as much as I do the players.”

Bowen is so mad he set up a Facebook page to identify the players who take a knee during the anthem.

Changing out of his uniform, Broncos linebacker Jerrol Garcia-Williams, a rookie from the University of Hawaii, said the veterans don’t understand what the kneelers were trying to achieve.

“It wasn’t intended to be disrespectful,” he said. “It was intended to support a cause.”

Quarterback Trevor Siemian said the football players love veterans.

“I think it’s important for them to know that everybody in this locker room supports the military,” he said.

At the bar in Fountain, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Alonza Carswell Jr. said he can understand both sides.

Players, he said, need to understand that their protest hurts people who would otherwise be their biggest fans.

“There is a lot more behind the flag than the people who are making things difficult in this country,” he said.

Veterans, he said, need to understand the passion behind the players’ message.

“Equality is the bottom line,” he said, “That’s the only way this country is going to get along.”

But in the age of social media, loud arguments are easier than quiet compromises, Carswell said.

“In this situation, you need to have the sound of that one pin drop,” he said. “That pin drop must be the voice of reason.”

Some players are beginning to see the other side.

Running late for a meeting after practice, rookie safety Dymonte Thomas stopped to make amends with veterans.

“It was never intended for that crowd,” Thomas said. “If they feel that way, we’re very sorry.

The Broncos issued a players’ statement Thursday that they will stand on Sunday for the national anthem.

And veterans tempers may cool, too.

Marine veteran Dale Schoonover said he’ll keep the television off on Sunday. He’s mad at the players and the NFL and nodded at most of the angry comments made by other patrons at the Fountain bar. He and the others there made a solemn pledge to boycott Sunday’s games. But he loves his Kansas City Chiefs and he clearly left himself a loophole.

“They play on Monday night,” he said.

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette