LONDON — Playing their game here at Wembley Stadium while most of America was still trying to wake up Sunday morning, the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins set a precedent of sorts for how other teams might decide to follow up on last week’s outbreak of controversial protests during the national anthem.
As promised, the New Orleans Saints came out and took a knee en masse before Sunday’s anthem, performed by well-known pop and country artist Darius Rucker, then stood as one as the song was played. Meanwhile, most of the Dolphins stood except for former Saints receiver Kenny Stills, safety Michael Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas, kneeling at the far right end of the team bench.
Former Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil spent the whole anthem hunched over stretching, perhaps making his own unique political statement against the agony of in-game leg cramps.
For those Dolphins, it was clear they were trying to send a similar message to the one that dominated the NFL’s previous weekend, though they ended up being dominated themselves 20-0 by New Orleans.
For the Saints, it was clear they were trying walk a fine line between continue to promote social awareness and not come off like a bunch of overpaid ingrates out to denigrate the flag, as they were portrayed by a highly offended faction of their fans.
Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro was one of 10 Saints players who sat during the anthem last week at Carolina. He indicated here Sunday the decision to kneel then stand as a team was one born of some intra-team diplomacy, a compromise all could publicly get behind.
“We wanted to show unity as a team," said Vaccaro, whose charity foundation lost half its members after the protest at Carolina. “I definitely wanted to show respect to our military,” he said, a reference to some of the derogatory accusations leveled at Vaccaro and his teammates. “This way we showed concern for the cause (of social injustice) and respect for the anthem.”
Whether the Saints' pregame goal came anywhere close to comparing to the team’s on-the-field goal of scooping up the Dolphins in a big net as they did was for the fans in the stands and those watching at home to decide.
Quarterback Drew Brees, who maintains he will always stand for the anthem, was at the forefront of the Saints’ form of protest Sunday, according to Vaccaro. As far as Brees was concerned, the day was a win-win.
“We showed solidarity and unity as a team,” he said. “We paid respect to all.
“We respected the cause of social injustice and inequality and the flag of the United States of America. I hope that’s the way it came across.”
Moments before the teams took the field. New Orleans resident Clayton Thomas was walking through Wembley’s concourse, wearing a Saints jersey that said, “I’m 100 percent with Colin Kaepernick” across the back. Kaepernick started in preseason 2016 sitting then kneeling during the national anthem as a symbol of protest, creating a template for others to follow, although he isn’t currently in the league.
Thomas said issues of racial profiling and excessive use of police force in his mind need to be at the forefront, not the method of protest.
“We’ve got to stay focused on the issues, not who kneels and who doesn’t,” he said.
London native Rich Sanderson, a committed Miami supporter sporting a teal No. 6 jersey for Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler, said before the game he was fine with players exercising their right of free speech however they decided to do it.
“The States are the land of the free, aren’t they?” Sanderson asked. “If guys do what they want to do, I don’t think it’s disrespectful.”
Friends Carol Ulichney and Ann Michele Gutsche flew in from Wayne, Pennsylvania, late last week for the game. Ulichney, who went to Tulane Law School, was pulling for the Saints while Gutsche, at heart a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, wore a Dolphins jersey topped by some Tulane Law Mardi Gras beads.
Both were against the anthem protests because of their personal ties to the military. Ulichney said her father was a World War II veteran who made five amphibious landings in the Pacific, while Gutsche said her father fought in the Korean War and that she had an uncle who served under Gen. George Patton during World War II.
“I think you should stand for the national anthem,” Ulichney said. “You can voice your concerns, but in another platform.”
Gutsche pointed to comments from President Trump two weeks ago that inflamed the issue and may have spurred hundreds of player protests across the NFL last weekend.
“I’m amazed at all the attention this has been getting,” she said. “I think if he didn’t tweet about this, it would all go away.”
The Saints (2-2) have an open date next week before returning home Oct. 15 to host the Detroit Lions. Neither Vaccaro nor Brees said what pregame display the Saints might make before that game.