Some Chiefs players participate in protest before game against Chargers

Some players sat out the national anthem before the Chiefs-Chargers game in Carson, California.
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Some players sat out the national anthem before the Chiefs-Chargers game in Carson, California.

Sam Mellinger

A Chiefs player who stands and one who kneels are talking, and that’s a good start

By Sam Mellinger

September 28, 2017 08:22 PM

This column will be tangentially about protests before football games which means every single one of you reading this has self-selected yourselves as at least open to dialogue. Good for you. We need more of that.

Because this is about listening. About understanding. About two Chiefs players from different backgrounds, very different places in life, and very different views about NFL players protesting racial inequality by kneeling during the national anthem.

Here is Dustin Colquitt. He’s a 35-year-old white man with a wife and five children. This is his 13th season. He’s had family members in the military, at least as far back as World War II.

“So I’m going to stand,” he said.

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Here is Chris Conley. He’s a 24-year-old black man, unmarried and without children, the son of an Air Force veteran. This is his third season. He kneeled before the Chiefs played the Chargers on Sunday.

“I respect this country, and I love it,” he said. “But I’m not above saying we can be better.”

Colquitt and Conley work side by side, the same way Eric Fisher (who stands) blocks for Kareem Hunt (who kneels), and the same way Travis Kelce (kneeler) has a friendship with Anthony Sherman (stander).

They’ve all been part of conversations that too many of the rest of us haven’t. They have a head start, of course, because every NFL locker room has men from all corners — Justin Houston is one of 11 kids, Patrick Mahomes is the son of a big-league baseball player, Fisher was raised by a single mom in rural Michigan, and Alex Smith by two parents in San Diego.

You could do worse for a gathering of diversity, in other words, and if the conversations between the sides have not gone deep or long at least they’re happening.

“We just want proactive ways to go forward and make a real difference,” Colquitt says. “Not just talk about something, but do something with feet, something that will make a real difference.”

We are far too polarized for any of this to singularly solve problems as complicated and personal as racial inequality, police practices, and what it means to be patriotic. For some, this conversation will only make it harder to hear the other side.

But for others — including, hopefully, those willing to read pieces like this — football can be a force for good.

Because in that locker room are men who have nothing in common but football. In another life, where Colquitt was a football fan but not a football player, maybe he’d see Conley kneeling and assume disrespect.

But here, he knows Conley. Knows Conley was born on a military base, to a father who missed the draft by two months but enlisted anyway, and gave support for his son’s protest as long as it came with respect, and is genuinely involved in the community.

“What we all want is to get to a place where everybody is satisfied,” Colquitt said. “Where everybody can say, ‘I feel loved, I feel like I’m given a chance, where people are helping me succeed and not keeping my head under water.’ Instead of just yelling ‘flag’ and making it a flag issue.

“Because it’s not. Everybody loves this country, and loves this flag. There’s the most opportunities in this country. But where’s the legwork, where’s the love? We all have skin in the game, sweat equity, so that everybody feels that this is our country.”

Likewise, in another life, where Conley was a football fan but not a football player, maybe he’d see Colquitt as a rich professional athlete and assume he didn’t think or care about these issues.

But, here, he knows Colquitt. Knows Colquitt is thoughtful, a leader in team chapel, and has given his time and money to help an organization that promotes dental care for kids who can’t afford it, with the idea that oral health promotes whole health.

“For too many people,” Conley said, “it’s like, ‘Oh, you either have to stand up for your teammates, or stand with the African-American community, or you have to choose your country.’ I don't think that should ever be a line that’s drawn that you have to pick a side. Unfortunately for a lot of people, that’s what it’s become.”

You might notice that Conley and Colquitt are talking mostly in generalities here. Maybe the right questions weren’t asked, but more likely, they believe the way forward is through more inclusion and commonalities than militantly picking sides.

That’s the most important part of this. Because the locker room is split on whether to kneel or stand but the most consistent message has been to respect each other. “Know your reason,” is how Conley puts it, with the implication that if everyone knows their own reason then they also know to respect everyone else’s reasons.

The NFL is, far too often, a destructive behemoth that tramples common sense if it means a dollar. There are and will continue to be ugly parts of the NFL’s role in this, too. There will be posturing and self-righteousness and even profit. That’s too bad.

But while all of that happens, inside the Chiefs locker room and all over the league, there will also be conversations. Maybe some minds will change, but more importantly, hopefully, each side will understand the other a little more.

“That’s the way a team operates,” Conley said. “If this microcosm of unity that’s in sports can get outside and people can communicate like that, it will go a long way toward fixing a lot of issues in our country.”

Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star: 816-234-4365, @mellinger