Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton Joe Ledford
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton Joe Ledford

Vahe Gregorian

Ex-Army coach Bob Sutton says many former players “do what they do” for right to protest

By Vahe Gregorian

October 05, 2017 06:50 PM

Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton exudes a cultivated and thoughtful demeanor, one that resonates more the scholar than a football coach.

That’s why former Chiefs safety Quintin Demps once called him a “brainiac.”

Sutton acquired much of that wisdom in 17 years at West Point, which he likes to call a “leadership laboratory.” During the the last nine of those years he was the head coach at the U.S. Military Academy.

As such, he has some illuminating thoughts on the ramifications of the protests of racial injustice during the national anthem.

Those protests here have been most notably carried out by cornerback Marcus Peters, whose mercurial behavior on the field Sutton also addressed and which we’ll get to below.

In the process of contemplating the protest trend, Sutton has solicited the opinions of many former players who went on to serve their country.

While the views encompass a wide spectrum, including some who believe it’s entirely wrong, he has been struck by the prevailing attitude.

“I think people would be surprised at their response; their response isn’t nearly what everybody is thinking it should be,” he said Thursday. “A lot of these guys are saying one of the reasons we did what we did, why we do what we do, (is) fighting for this type of country: where you can express yourself. …

“In their view, the idea is, look, we didn’t say, well, we’re going to fight for these things, except if a guy doesn’t stand for the national anthem. We didn’t put that amendment on the agenda.”

In his own nuanced and tactful way, Sutton broached other aspects of what has become a heated debate:

Without questioning it, for instance, he noted that players weren’t required on the sideline for the anthem until a few years ago.

(My words here, not his: That’s when, as it happens, the U.S. Department of Defense began paying the NFL millions to furnish patriotic displays. How that conflation has contributed to the controversy is a panel discussion in itself.)

Sutton also said a number of his former players wonder if protesting during the anthem is “the proper venue.”

While calling that a whole different discussion, he is concerned that the worthy message could be “in jeopardy” because of the method without explicit clarity about what’s being said.

“I think when you have an issue, then somewhere along the line the issue has to be brought to the table,” he said. “And we all know there are a lot of different ways to bring that to the table.

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“Some are better-received than others, and in the end you don’t want to lose the issue or the message. So I’m sure the guys could verbalize that sometimes.”

Which brings us to the more specific matter of Peters, the one Chief who has been sitting all season during the anthem.

Beyond a Twitter post advocating “Liberty” and “Justice For All” as written on the bottom of his cleats before the first game at New England, Peters has declined to discuss his stance since last season.

That’s when, after raising a black-gloved fist before the 2016 opener, he said, “I was just stating how I’m black, and I love being black, (and) I’m supporting Colin (Kaepernick) in what he’s doing as far as raising awareness with the justice system. But I didn’t mean anything (bad) by it.”

Even in an illuminating and fascinating interview with The Star’s Terez Paylor on Friday afternoon, Peters advocated for us all coming together and protecting each other … but also conveyed that if that’s not enough for some “nobody’s gotta know my reason why I sit.”

Without more elaboration, Sutton believes “it can get clouded, because now you’re talking about another issue here” that obscures the point.

While Peters has no obligation to talk about his reasoning, he has a platform here from which he could offer more to those who seek to understand but struggle to.

Perhaps insight about the reasons for his conviction about the issue also would fill a void for those who don’t have the sense of empathy to realize they can’t possibly grasp the experiences that make this important to him.

Meanwhile, he’s become the focus of some ire among fans, intensified by his decision to sit during the anthem on Monday just after a moment of silence for the victims of the mass murder in Las Vegas.

It’s unclear how that might be connected to the episode on Monday when Peters cursed at a fan after Peters was beaten for a touchdown for the second time in the 29-20 win over Washington at Arrowhead Stadium.

On Wednesday, coach Andy Reid said the issue had “been addressed” with Peters and added, “We can’t go in that direction” of behavior.

KC Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters was caught on camera yelling at fans at Arrowhead during Monday night's game against Washington. Coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith addressed the incident on Wednesday.


Still, it’s also not known what words might have set Peters off on a night Washington receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr. said he repeatedly was called a racial epithet.

At some point you keep calling us The N word ... we going to start acting up,” Pryor wrote on Instagram.

The Chiefs have been unable to substantiate Pryor’s claim, but they ask that anyone with footage or knowledge of any such incident call them at 816-920-3900.

KC Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, a 13-year veteran of the team, addresses questions surrounding the accusation by Washington wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, Sr., that he was called the N-word by multiple fans at Arrowhead on Monday night.


Sutton said he doesn’t know what was said to Peters and that he hasn’t spoken with him about his protest or other such personal things.

“I don’t talk to them about religion,” he said, smiling and adding, “Does that happen in any work place? I don’t think it does as much as people would think.”

But Sutton does acknowledge that Peters has to learn to contain his volatile temper better than he has.

That was on further display in the last few weeks in everything from pregame jawing with Washington’s Josh Norman to an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty at San Diego.

On the play in San Diego, Sutton said Peters was correct that he’d been shoved in the back, but …

“He’s just got to learn, hey, not all the calls go the right way,” said Sutton, who also called Peters “a sharp, sharp guy.”

If they aren’t already, referees soon could start anticipating trouble with Peters. After all, they have their own scouting reports to prepare for games — and they’re human beings.

“You want those officials to stay neutral,” Sutton said. “You don’t want them to be, ‘OK, here comes so-and-so. I know what’s going to happen here.’ ”

Still, Sutton is wary of trying to suppress Peters’ competitive spirit — which along with his athleticism, brilliant understanding of the game and uncanny ball skills is what has made him an All-Pro.

“You’ve got to be really careful of saying we don’t want a guy out there who isn’t Marcus,” said Sutton, who reminded that Peters is only 24. “Sometimes your strength can become your weakness. That’s really the way to say it. His strength is his high level of competitiveness, and sometimes it goes over. He’s just got to, as he goes along here, figure out how to control that and harness that.”

Gesturing with his hands, he added, “It’s like up to here it’s great, (but) go down the other side of that Bell Curve, it’s not so good. But I don’t want to change the guy.

“I just want him to take that energy and that enthusiasm and that competitiveness and just funnel it right to where we need it, where he needs it.”

As much as the Chiefs will work with him, as much as this is “always going to be a struggle for him,” Sutton said, Peters ultimately is the only one who can find that sweet spot.

There’s no one answer to any of this, Sutton knows.

But his thoughtful perspective on all this is a reminder of how worthwhile it is to stay open-minded and keep thinking instead of drawing obstinate lines and making assumptions about how others feel.

Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian