Will Packers and Bears Continue NFL Protests on Thursday Night Football?

Once upon a time—even as recently as a year ago—the Chicago Bears visiting the Green Bay Packers would have existed in a bubble as a battle for supremacy in the NFC North (yes, let's enter a parallel reality for the moment where the Bears are contenders).

In 2017, though, the NFL can no longer stay divorced from the political climate of the country. Colin Kaepernick awoke a protest movement by kneeling during the national anthem last September, transmitting a message about the treatment of black and minority Americans by the police. But it took President Donald Trump's extraordinary intervention last Friday to light another fire under U.S. professional sport. Trump's statement to a rally in Alabama that NFL owners should "fire" any player kneeling during the anthem provoked a show of unity across the league at the weekend from players and owners. In London, England, the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars knelt for the Star Spangled Banner and stood during the rendition of God Save the Queen. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Trump's words "divisive."

On Monday night, the Dallas Cowboys knelt briefly before the national anthem, accompanied by owner Jerry Jones, before defeating the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Jones, who donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration, had previously voiced his belief in "respect for the flag."

And so to Thursday Night Football, and a game that might once have revolved around whether Mitch Trubisky should replace Mike Glennon, or whether Aaron Rodgers can shed some unusually inconsistent early-season form. The Packers released a statement on Tuesday evening calling on their fans to join in their own gesture at Lambeau Field, by linking arms as the players and coaches intend to do.

"Let's work together to build a society that is more fair and just," the statement read. "Join us this Thursday by locking arms with whoever you're with, stranger or loved one, wherever you are—intertwined and included—in this moment of unification."

On Sunday before the overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals, only Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks and Kevin King sat on the bench at Lambeau for the anthem while the rest of the team linked arms on the sideline. Bennett is the brother of Michael, the Seattle Seahawks defensive end who has been one of the most prominent faces and voices in the debate.

The Packers' behavior is an illustration of how Kaepernick's original message has become diversified—Kendricks told ESPN that he sat in order to bring awareness to the plight of Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria. Rodgers, meanwhile, said the Packers' gesture was about "unity" not protest. "This is about equality," Rodgers said. "This is about unity and love and growing together as a society and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people. But we've got to come together and talk about these things and grow as a community, as a connected group of individuals in our society, and we're going to continue to show love and unity, and this week we're going to ask the fans to join in as well and come together and show people that we can be connected and we can grow together."

The Bears were involved, indirectly, in one of the most visually arresting moments of last weekend when the entire visiting Pittsburgh Steelers team except left tackle Alejandro Villanueva declined to come out of the locker room for the anthem. The Bears linked arms while the Star-Spangled Banner played.

CBS will air the anthem before tonight's game, according to the Chicago Tribune—the first "Thursday Night Football" game since Trump blundered into the debate and set the NFL, social justice and politics rushing head-on to meet each other. In a superheated political climate, the actual game is an afterthought.